John Quincy Adams
On October 11, 1842 former President John Quincy Adams realized he had neglected to respond—several times—to an invitation to be an honored guest at the Croton Water Celebration. In his diary he wrote,
“. . . on turning over my letters recently received, to endorse and file them, I found one which I had totally forgotten, from . . . New York . . . inviting me to a festival to be held on the 14th of this month, in celebration of the introduction of the Croton water into the city. There was on the note a twice-repeated request for an answer, which I had overlooked till now. I answered the letter, declining the invitation, and sent [my reply] . . . so that it may reach New York on Thursday, the day before the feast.”
Many important dignitaries were invited to the great Croton Water Celebration, but contrary to some books and a number of online sources (including—perhaps not surprisingly—Wikipedia), former Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, then-President John Tyler, and Governor of New York William H. Seward did not attend. [UPDATE: We have corrected the error on Wikipedia. Depending on whether our changes are accepted the error may or may not still be present.]
It’s difficult to determine how this error crept into the historical record.
The contemporary newspaper accounts of the event exhaustively list every participating fire department, trade organization, temperance society, and civic official but say nothing of the President of the United States, two former Presidents and the Governor of New York. It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that newspapers published within days of the celebration would have missed these historic figures.
A year later Charles King even published the letters of regret from all four men in his book, A memoir of the construction, cost, and capacity of the Croton Aqueduct . . . together with an account of the civic celebration of the fourteenth October, 1842 . . .
The President of the United States sends his regrets.
King has a long section of replies to invitations to the Croton Water Celebration. One of the most interesting appears long after the letters from officials like the Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General of the State of New York; after letters from diplomats like the Counsels of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Greece—even after the letters from the mayors of cities like Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Troy.
Writing from Peekskill on October 8, 1842, Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. replied,
”I have this day received your polite invitation from the Common Council of the city of New York, to join with them on the 14th instant, to celebrate the introduction of the Croton water into the City of New York. With pleasure I accept your invitation, and will be in New York at the time appointed.”
If anyone at that time had a plausible claim to the water from the Croton River it was Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. Indeed, the Van Cortlandt family had engaged in extended litigation against the Croton Water Commissioners over the diversion of water. Even if he had come to accept New York City’s diversion there was the matter of the Great Freshet of 1841, when part of the Croton Dam gave way. The torrent of water and debris destroyed bridges and businesses, silted out the mouth of the Croton River and is said to have come within 8 feet of destroying Van Cortlandt Manor.
The Old Croton Dam after reconstruction.
Did Van Cortlandt actually attend? What did he really think of the great event? Unfortunately his published correspondence contains just three letters from 1842 and none of them mention the Croton Water Celebration.