The Journal of Economic History


Depth to Bedrock and the Formation of the Manhattan Skyline, 1890–1915


a1 Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ 07102. E-mail:

a2 Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458. E-mail:

a3 Teaching Fellow, Department of Economics, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458. E-mail:


New York City historiography holds that Manhattan developed two business centers—downtown and midtown—because the bedrock is close to the surface at these locations, with a bedrock “valley” in between. This article is the first effort to measure the effect of depth to bedrock on construction costs and the location of skyscrapers. We find that while depth to bedrock had a modest effect on costs (up to 7 percent), it had relatively little influence on the location of skyscrapers.

“Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the earth and hold the building to a turning planet.”

Carl Sandburg, Skyscraper


We thank Gideon S. S. Sorkin for his expertise in engineering and history of architecture, Robert Snyder for his expertise on New York City history, and Patrick Brock and Stephanie Tassier-Surine for assisting us with their geological expertise. We would like to thank Howard Bodenhorn, Mary Beth Combs, Alec Gates, Alex Marshall, Brendan O'Flaherty, and Rosemary Wakeman for helpful conversations and comments on previous drafts. We are grateful to the Skyscraper Museum for access to its data. We appreciate the comments from seminar participants at CUNY Queens and Emory University. Finally, we appreciate the comments of Price Fishback and two anonymous referees. Support for this project was generously provided by a Rutgers University Research Council Grant and a Fordham University Faculty Research Grant.