On Superstition Island in New Jersey, 150 years ago, they used street cleaners to make rainwater drinkable

After Jesus Christ, water was probably the first substance humans made a special effort to cultivate. But living on the bottom of Lake Amboy in New Jersey, centuries ago, tens of thousands of people could not drink it. They picked it up from the surface. For a time, they intentionally covered their bodies in it to bathe.

When the arid land became crowded and polluted in the 16th century, some community members decided to clean up the surrounding land. They dug pits to collect urban trash. As in today’s dump sites, most of it fell into rotting sacks and stones that rolled down the mountains of trash that covered the town. Re-used but used materials became the trash piles’ only stable foundation. Houses were built on stilts because they offered the best chance to get the plastic, glass, and other materials out of the bags into fresh air, before they became even more worthless and covered in earth.

These new homes were built on either an ancient cornfield or an island in the lake, often serving as a combo farm and village. They created some festivals and markets where people would buy fresh bread and vegetables, and ate new (and stale) bread daily. They also made people new clothes from castoff cloth. They also collected rainwater, and used it to irrigate their gardens.

Once the area was no longer dried out by heavy rainfall, the population exploded. Slums and empty houses were built and wells were dug and soon water turned into pebbles and then into concrete. Nobody could trust the water to last long enough to make something edible out of it.

Through the years, garbage grew and piled up on the island. Enormous piles of garbage covered the earth, coated the roads, and even formed “bubbles” in the trash. Photos from the 19th century show a city full of trash, as well as a land filled with bad memories and buried secrets. The island was called “Superstition Island.”

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Joe Ryan joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1997 as a correspondent based in New York City. He currently serves as Senior Correspondent based in Atlanta.

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