Friday, January 11, 2013

New Developments on the Croton Aqueduct

File:High Bridge, New York City, 1900.jpg
Courtesy Library of Congress
High Bridge Aquaduct circa 1900 as seen from University Ave in the Bronx
looking toward Manhattan and the High Bridge Tower
An engineering marvel of its time, the Old Croton Aqueduct was a water delivery and distribution system constructed for New York City between 1837 and 1842.  It was a gravity fed system 41 miles in length from the Croton River in Westchester County to the reservoirs and water distribution systems on the island of Manhattan in New York City.  Significant components of this original system are still in place and in use today, approaching 200 years later.
Today, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on hand, New York City broke ground on a $61 million project for the restoration of the High Bridge, a non functioning aquaduct bridge that spans the Harlem River.  High Bridge is the oldest remaining bridge in New York City and while it stopped carrying water to Manhattan as part of the Croton Aquaduct system in 1917, it was closed for public use around 1970 for pedestrians and cyclists from the Highbridge section of the Bronx to the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.  The new development project, when completed, will reopen the bridge to pedestrians and cyclists and is expected to be completed in 2014.

I lived immediately adjacent to the High Bridge Aquaduct and the accompanying Tower that was used as a vent to allow the water to go down into the water system back in the 1940s.  It was a different era then.

The history of the Croton Aquaduct is very interesting.  An aquaduct was necessitated in the early 19th century because the existing water supply for the city had become polluted and inadequate for the need of the city.   Manhattan had a very limited supply of fresh water available since it is completely surrounded by brackish rivers.  Before the aqueduct was constructed, residents of New York City obtained water from cisterns, wells, natural springs, and other bodies of water. 

The unsanitary conditions that arose before the existence of the aquaduct caused an increase in disease. Epidemics ravaged the city as a result of the polluted aquifer, overcrowded housing, the lack of sewers, public ignorance of basic sanitary conditions, and the existence of polluting industries near wells and residential areas. These conditions contributed to an unprecedented mortality rate of 2.6% in 1830. In addition, the rapid expansion in densely packed wooden buildings, combined with a lack of an adequate water supply, led to many fires, culminating in the 1835 Great Fire of New York, which destroyed large parts of the city.

The need for a new supply of fresh water was crucial and in 1837 construction began on a massive engineering project. supervised by Chief Engineer John B. Jervis, to divert it from sources upstate. The Croton River was dammed, aqueducts were built, tunnels dug, piping laid and reservoirs created. Iron piping encased in brick masonry was laid from the Croton Dam in northern Westchester County to the Harlem River, where it continued over the High Bridge at 173rd Street and down the west side of Manhattan and finally into a Receiving Reservoir located between 79th and86th streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues that is now the site of the Great Lawn and Turtle pond in Central Park.  The Receiving Reservoir was rectangular tank within fortress-like rusticated retaining walls, 1,826 feet by  836 feet; it held up to 180,000,000 gallons of water. 35,000,000 gallons flowed into it daily from northern Westchester.
From the Receiving Reservoir water flowed down to the Distributing Reservoir, better known simply as the Croton Reservoir, a similar fortification located on Fifth Avenue between 40th Street and 42nd Street, where the main branch of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are located today. This reservoir was built to resemble ancient Egyptian architecture. 
The Aqueduct opened to public use with great fanfare on October 14, 1842. The day-long celebration culminated in a fountain of water that spouted to a height of fifty feet from the beautifully decorated cast-iron Croton Fountain in City Hall Park. Among those present were then-President of the United States John Tyler, former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, and Governor of New York William H. Seward.  
Water started flowing through the aqueduct on June 22, 1842, taking 22 hours for gravity to take the water the 41 miles to reach Manhattan.  Even though only 6,175 houses had been connected to the system by 1844, the Croton water had already dramatically improved both domestic hygiene and interior design. Baths and running water were being built in the private homes of wealthy New Yorkers and public bathing facilities were created for the masses. The water system had another inadvertent consequence. The decline in the number of residents drawing water from the city's wells resulted in a rise in the water table which flooded many cellars. To address this problem, the city built sewers in many residential streets. By 1852, 148 miles of sewers had already been constructed.
Despite its size, the capacity of the Old Croton Aqueduct could not keep up with the growth of New York City, and construction on a New Croton Aqueduct began in 1885 a few miles east. The new aqueduct, buried much deeper than the old one, went into service in 1890, with three times the capacity of the Old Croton Aqueduct. It currently supplies ten percent of New York City's water. The Croton Receiving Reservoir continued to supply New York City with drinking water until 1940, when Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Robert Moses ordered it drained and filled to create the Great Lawn in Central Park. The old aqueduct remained in service until 1955; in 1987 the most northern portion was re-opened to provide water to Ossining.

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick note to tell all that the High Bridge redevelopment has been completed and it officially opened June 9, 2015. There will be a celebration on July 25, 2015 for all. Come and enjoy the festivities.