Manhattan Well Diggers Excavate Old America

Dumpdigging in Old American Cities

That would be a good name for a book. Someone should focus on that subject and research and write that best seller; I’d only have to start an online discussion by which everyone involved can contribute their digs and photos. This would amount to half the content. Today that’s how people conduct interactive research on a subject. Perhaps a thread on the Dumpdiggers Discussion Forum would help?

On Sunday there came a curious email from someone south of the border. This little birdie was very excited, and very eager to share the thrill and spread the obsession that is the bottle bug virus.

First, remember the cloak and dagger nature of digging relics and why talk of buried treasure engenders such secrets and lies. Only then can you appreciate how difficult it is for anyone to get rare and pretty pictures of a spectacular dig in downtown New York City, because this activity is done in secret. And I believe this blog is the first to display these pictures, another rare honour in this subculture.

You all know how I feel about the heritage police in Canada… Our bureaucracy of backward thinkers have their own blanket rules propagated only to protect their own outdated establishment, and nothing else. True diggers hold a higher moral code which binds them to use the internet and share as much as possible about their quest and their activities. They strive to educate the public by whatever means necessary in order to communicate the subtle excitement of excavating history…

So I was honored to receive these pictures of Dan, Tim & Mya, the Manhattan Well Diggers doing their thing at the bottom of some deep holes in the middle of their great city. Thanks to Joe who sent along some text too, and I love the cryptic tone that hearkens back to the days of adventure on the high seas, when X marked the spot.

Here’s what Joe wrote, transcribed, in that cryptic email,

We’ll take the A Train…to The Village that is.

On the way to twenty-one feet of exceptionally fertile night soil
with the Manhattan Well Diggers.

“Rolling swiftly down the tracks in a dark tube, situated under a sizable metropolis, on the way to dig a privy is a fairly unique endeavor by most standards….”

…”Lining up a dig in the heart of New York today is significant. Abandoned buildings, those constructed without plumbing in the mid nineteenth century or earlier, which once dotted the streets of certain key neighborhoods, and the numerous easily accessible open lots containing great digging potential, are basically long gone…”

“…a week ago we had the pleasure of excavating a hundred intact bottles and miscellaneous pieces from 1845-1870. These were unearthed in the privy right next door from today’s adventures. Remarkably, during day two of that project the broken remains of a small photograph, showing a seated gentlemen and believed to be a daguerreotype, were uncovered in the privy. The gold plate which surrounds the glass picture indicates it was most likely taken at KIMBALL 347 BROADWAY N-Y. An 1856 listing was confirmed for that address in New York. The third and final day of that excavation was spent sifting and assembling various shard-piles for the local history professor who owns the property…”

by Daniel McGee

Do you have anything you want to share with the world? My email address is rob AT dumpdiggers DOT com and I’ll publish your stories and link to your site and help you share your knowledge and ambitions.

A Dumpdiggers Perusal


This dumpdigger made a house call today, Sat Jun 10th 2009 the author spent a lovely Saturday afternoon with Dale Thurman, deep in the concrete jungle, east of Yonge St just below Bloor, and right in the heart of Toronto’s downtown core. The wise man contacted me seeking an appraisal, and so I’ve created this post to help relate the experience to you.

Dale Thurman is a building contractor and jack of all trades with a long resume and a career of happy customers. He doesn’t advertise his business anymore, but rather works steady all year long on word of mouth referrals and co ventures. Dale is an old school structural engineer, a restoration expert and savvy pack rat.

He’s also a studied historian and the self appointed protector of the Thurman family heirlooms and special keepsakes. His apartment is well organized to accommodate the mission. The living room shelters a drafting table, sewing machines and lathes and the walls are lined with filing cabinets and shelves; its part museum part machine shop. Dale’s office could double as a mad scientist’s lair.

He asked me for an honest appraisal.
When I stepped in the door I knew immediately what I was seeing – a bottle bug. Dale is obsessed with glass and at age 56 he’s still taking home anything and everything he finds because he can’t bear to part with the objects after experiencing the thrill of discovering them at work. After forty years of doing home renovations on the oldest houses in this city, Mr Thurman had unearthed lots of bottles. At one site in particular, near the intersection of Jones St and Queen St (in what I consider the ‘golden triangle’ of Toronto) he trenched into a 1920’s residential dump full of old sodas, medicines, and food bottles.

Visitors in Dale’s apartment see immediately, above the front windows, a wide shelf with about two hundred pieces of glass stacked in rows. At first glace it appears to be treasure trove of old bottles, but closer inspection reveals that almost every piece is machine made, most are blanks, one fifth are screw tops and some are badly damaged. In the most severe cases, some of Dale’s bottles are partially melted (from the dump fires). However, I soon spied on the wall of his apartment two bottles with faded brown paper labels that I knew were going to be significant.

Even from the floor I could read the labels,

E.E. RUTHERFORD (Re-Astilled Glycerin)

J.F. HARTZ Co., PURE OLIVE OIL

Although glycerin and olive oil are both found in the early 1900s kitchen, these bottles appear medicinal and were probably used in a pharmacological enterprise.

Then we focused on the Dairy Bottles. My experience has taught me that there are more collectors of dairies and sodas than there are for medicines and sauce bottles and food jars (cathedral pickles excluded) even though these genres of glass bottles are also richly embossed and usually just as pretty.

In perusing Dale’s milks I lifted each specimen to scrutinize the bottom for pontil mark that would reveal it as a blown bottle, but this tell tale scar is not present in any of Dale’s bottles. Although he did have some milks with embossing from local dairies that I have never seen before… These two creatures are new to me:

THOS DOWNING / 127 / CARLAW MILK

J. HOLLINGER + CO / MAIN 2055

Gazing further down the collection I spotted a square cobalt blue bottle sticking its neck and shoulders above a grove of sodas on the far end of the crowded shelf. I directed Dale to fetch down this relic at once, and he lifted it from the ranks. A tall blue E.B Shuttleworth chemical bottle that is so gorgeously almost perfect. A tiny chip on the lip is the only flaw, and its dirty. The bottle needs a good brisk tumbling, but its a gem.

I soon counseled to put this jewel in the window. This one vessel is worth more than everything else and should be polished and specially presented in the sunlight.

Dale also has some antique maps, books and ephemera. He has a brochure from the Lusitania, and a 1912 tourist photo book entitled Canada, From Ocean to Ocean that features good crisp black and white photos of popular hot spots in every city all across the nation. He keeps this tome alongside the 1935 Arrow Toronto Street Guide which has a lovely fold out map glued to the last page.

In closing I congratulated Dale on saving, preserving and keeping safe these lovely pieces of Canadian history.