Tag Archives: Croton Aqueduct

Visit the glorious High Bridge, New York’s tribute to the ancient world

The thirst for water has transformed New York.

The Dutch were sold on the island’s placement in the harbor at the mouth of the mighty Hudson River, making it a convenient waypoint for explorers and traders. Soon its ports had built the foundation for New York’s—and later America’s—financial sector.

The city’s most influential nineteenth-century businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, got his feet wet in business first with ferries and steamships before building his mighty railroad empire. Manhattan is surrounded by water, and yet early New York would almost be undone due to a lack of it.

Traces of the city’s centuries-long quest for clean drinking water can be found from the island’s tip to its top—from the site of spring water wells down in Bowling Green to the relics of old water systems that we’ve visited in the past few chapters.

But no monument to freshwater dominates quite like the High Bridge, the Romanesque wonder linking Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Courtesy NYPL

For many decades this majestic artifact, seemingly plucked from the hills of ancient Gaul, was a vital link in that great engineering triumph: the Croton Aqueduct.

With the dense river traffic below and the icky-brackish composition of the surrounding rivers, early New Yorkers had to look beyond their waterways for drinking water. They dug cisterns and hunted down springs, but these couldn’t support the growing city.

By the late eighteenth century, Collect Pond, a so-called freshwater source located northeast of today’s City Hall, had become polluted by the industries that surrounded it, and valiant efforts to bring water from other sources during the Colonial era were dampened by debt and war.

Courtesy MCNY

In 1799 future vice president/murderer Aaron Burr hatched a grand business plan to construct a reservoir system that would distribute water via an elaborate network of hollowed-out logs. (Above: The reservoir and grandest structure of the Manhattan Company system, pictured here in 1825.)

Unfortunately for parched New Yorkers, he ended up using most of the funding for his company to establish a successful bank instead. More than a century and a half later, Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan, known today simply as “Chase,” one of the largest banks in the world. But his water distribution efforts ended up being woefully inadequate, and left Manhattan high and dry.


By the 1830s the city was on the verge of a health crisis, as putrid water, poor sanitation, and all-around squalid living conditions culminated in a series of health epidemics and breakouts—which only heightened the urgent need for clean water.

In April 1835 New Yorkers were so desperate for a freshwater supply that they voted in favor of a seemingly impossible plan: a pipeline that would bring the pure waters of the Croton River, forty miles north in Westchester County, down to city residents. Only underscoring the emergency, eight months later the Great Fire of 1835 would ravage the city. The aqueduct couldn’t be constructed quickly enough.



The elaborate project employed thousands of mostly Irish immigrants for many years (1837–1842). They constructed a sophisticated system of iron piping and brick masonry, which drew upon gravity to run the water through pipes and over arches, across the lush terrain of Westchester, and through the small towns that would later form the nucleus of the Bronx.

But how would the water get into the island of Manhattan? The aqueduct’s architects would need to find a way to keep it flowing across the Harlem River. Drilling technologies were not advanced enough in the 1840s to allow for a tunnel, so planners thought bigger—and higher.


The High Bridge, at an elegant 1,450 feet long, is the oldest surviving bridge in New York. Completed in 1848, it not only brought the Croton water into the city, but it also made one heck of a statement noticed around the world.

New Yorkers had pulled off a technological miracle, borrowing engineering and architecture principles not attempted, on this scale, since the glory days of the Roman Empire. They were changing the course of one river forty-one miles away and sending its waters high above another.

“Water! Water!” wrote diarist and former mayor Philip Hone on October 12, 1842, “is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

When the water was finally turned on—flowing on October 14, 1842—the city threw a bash bigger than any since the expulsion of the British in 1783.

The water flowed through pipes across the High Bridge and to a receiving reservoir in the area of today’s Central Park, and from there to a distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

From there it moved through the city, eventually to City Hall Park, where good, clean water shot high into the air and down into the City Hall fountain, to the delight of the public. Imagine— enough water to waste in a fountain!

(At the time of the celebration, the High Bridge had not yet been completed, so Croton water crossed a temporary low bridge. The lofty span replaced the modest one a few years later.)

Below: New Yorkers gathering at City Hall in celebration at the completion of the Croton water system. For more information, check out our podcast on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct



But the celebrated new system struggled to keep up with the demands of the growing city. In 1872, as masses of new arrivals from far-off lands crammed into tenements, an attractive water tower was constructed near the High Bridge to help increase the water pressure into the city.

The High Bridge and tower in 1915

By this time the High Bridge itself had turned into an attraction, a festive promenade where young gentlemen and their parasol-clinging lady companions could stroll, taking in the striking views of the still-forested landscape that surrounded them, while millions of gallons of clean water coursed beneath their feet.


But New York, growing larger every day, would need more water. Much, much more. The introduction of indoor plumbing would require an entirely new and much larger Croton system to be built, which opened in 1890 and employed the massive Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx to satisfy the demand.

But alas, with a million flushes came the end of the High Bridge as an active part of the water system. Its function replaced by unromantic pipes buried underground, the bridge and water tower were retired from service by 1949, and soon these structures modeled after antiquity became historical relics themselves.

Below: The High Bridge, lost in a haze, photographed in 1920


In a surprising twist given the unforgiving tendencies of city planners of the day, it was probably the beauty of the bridge and the tower that kept them from being ripped down in a bit of “progress.” Motorists along the Major Deegan Expressway took moments from their traffic jams to reflect on the possible story behind these strange and magnificent artifacts, which grew more incongruous as the modern highway system developed around them.


Two years ago this month, the High Bridge was restored, not for the movement of water but for those visitors and their parasols (replaced by headphones, we imagine) to enjoy a one-of-a-kind perspective on their buzzing metropolis.

If you go — or rather, when you go, because you really must see it — reflect upon the water that once passed below you—it helped this city grow.


Mass Transit: Take the A/C or the 1 train to 168th Street, get out and walk east. OR the M101 bus takes you right up to Highbridge Park

On the Bronx side, you can take the 4 train to Mt Eden Ave but it’s a bit of a walk west. Instead take the Bx11 or Bx13 bus

From the NYC Parks website:

“If you are entering the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, please enter Highbridge Park at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and walk east to the High Bridge Water Tower Terrace staircase down to the bridge level. If entering from the Bronx side, enter at University Avenue and 170th Street in Highbridge, Bronx.”

Some images from my trip there in November. It’s three times as beautiful now!

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The fire at Barnum’s American Museum 150 years ago

One hundred and fifty years ago this week (July 13, 1865), New York City lost one of its most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.

When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in 1841, the kooky curiosities contained within the building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street — at the foot of Park Row — were simply reconstituted properties from other museums.  But he soon expanded the collection to include living spectacles, both human and animal, become both the greatest show and the greatest side-show on earth.

From his lilliputian stars Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt to the unfortunate white whales contained in water tanks in the basement, Barnum’s American Museum was New York’s destination for the fascinating and the weird.  Millions would visit its corridors during its two and a half decades of operation.  It was so renown that it was even a target of attempted sabotage during the Civil War. 

Below: A rare photo of Barnum’s American Museum, taken in 1858

Taken 1858
Taken 1858

At around noon on July 13, 1865, the building quickly succumbed to  “the fierce tooth of fire,” causing the greatest pandemonium that New York City had ever seen.  I must give way to some of the press reports of the day, as they best capture the drama:

New York Times: “Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. Barnum has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.”

Below: The street scene at the cross-section of Broadway and Ann Street, in 1860. A sign advertising Barnum’s snake collection can be seen on the museum.

Courtesy Internet Book Archive
Courtesy Internet Book Archive

New York Sun: “About half past twelve o’clock yesterday … the Engineer rushed up from below announcing that his room was on fire, and about the same time immense volumes of smoke permeated the Ann Street end of the building.  [K]nowing that the immense whale tank was directly over the spot where the fire had begun to make headway, attempted to knock a hole in the huge reservoir.”

Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library
Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library


The occupants of the tanks were doomed.  “‘[T]wo whales, imported, at a cost of $7,000, from the coast of Labrador,’ whose sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, [was] a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met.”

The fire spread rapidly, quickly filling the upper floors with smoke.  Firemen burst in from the Ann Street side and quickly attended to patrons who had collapsed or were too confused in the immense labyrinth of bizarre objects to escape.


A fireman named William McNamara is credited with single-handedly evacuating many patrons of the museum, not to mention some of the performers who regularly lived there.  From the New York Sun: “Knowing that [some performers] occupied apartments on the third floor, he rushed thither and burst open the doors.   Finding the rooms empty he ascended to the next floor  and succeeded in bringing down the ladies assembled in the dressing rooms there – Miss Swan, the Giantess, and Miss Zuruby Hannus, the Circassian girl.”

Below: Anna Swan, ‘the Giantess’ who lived at the museum, was successfully rescued


Many of the wax figures from the third floor were hurled out the windows. One peculiar item captured the imagination of the crowd — the wax depiction of Jefferson Davis, dressed in a woman’s petticoat.  (It was rumored that the former president of the Confederacy has attempted to escape dressed as a lady.)

NYT:  “One [rescuer] had Jefferson Davis’ effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jefferson or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jefferson made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blow them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed.”

NYS: “When the Jefferson Davis petticoated figure was recognized by the crowd, it was seized, kicked, knocked and finally hanged to an awning frame [in front of St. Paul’s Church], amid the derisive and contumelious epithets of the persons engaged in this pastime.”

More seriously a great number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War were incinerated in the fire. “Valuable mementos of Washington, Putnam, Greene, Marion, Andre, Cornwallis, Howe, Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, Adams, and other eminent men which should have been carefully stored in a fire-proof vault, yesterday smoldered in the heat….” [NYT]

barnum's museum burns 1865

The museum’s impressive collection of taxidermy — monkeys, lions, elephants, zebras — were swallowed up by smoke and collapsed into the inferno.

But the museum also had a great many living animals — snakes, pigs, dogs, and even a kangaroo and an alligator. And, of course, a great many monkeys — “big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangry monkeys.” Most perished in the flames although some escaped into the streets, some never to be found again.

Below: This is Harpers Weekly’s illustration of Barnum’s second fire — see below — but could have tragically captured the events on July 13, 1865.

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

Remarkably, nobody humans died in the blaze. In fact, few wax depictions of humans perished as many took to rescuing wax figures thinking they were alive.  The fire spread to several surrounding buildings, and soon the entire block was engulfed in flame.

NYT:  “The roof of the Museum had now fallen, and the interior of the building was like the crater of a volcano. A stream of heated air issued from the top, and was borne eastward by the breeze directly over the block, carrying with it light articles, pieces of burning wood, shingles ….

At 1:30 came a crash resounding like the explosion of a powder magazine. The whole wall on the Ann-street side had fallen. A cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, making it dark as twilight, and rendering it impossible to descry objects at short distance.”


Harpers Weely
Harpers Weely



Notable among the surrounding buildings that were damaged was the famous Knox the Hatter at 212 Broadway. Fortunately for the fate of New York,  the Croton Aqueduct water system had been installed two decades earlier, allowing the blaze to be put out with some speed, preventing a repeat of the Great Fire of 1835.

There was a bit a looting, including “two men dressed as soldiers [who] were seen coming out of the shoe-store in Ann Street, each with five or six pairs of shoes under their coats.” And there were false reports that the lion has escaped and was running through the streets.

For years after, people mourned the loss of Barnum’s collection, truly among the greatest in New York City up until that time.  Barnum attempted to relaunch the museum at 539-541 Broadway. but it, too, was destroyed in a fire (pictured below). Then, in 1871, he leased a train depot and called it Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.  (It would later morph into the first Madison Square Garden.)

Finally he just decided to take his collection of acts on the road forming a traveling circus in 1881 with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey.  While the world of entertainment would be changed by their collaboration — Barnum and Bailey’s Circus — most would consider the old American Museum as Barnum’s greatest achievement.

Below: Barnum’s second museum destroyed by fire, which gutted the building on a cold day

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly



The Croton Aqueduct: How New York got its drinking water

Above: The Croton Reservoir in 1850, in what would soon become Central Park. (NYPL)

PODCAST One of the great challenges faced by a growing, 19th-century New York City was the need for a viable, clean water supply.

We take water for granted today. But before the 1830s, citizens relied on cisterns to collect rainwater, a series of city wells drilled down to bubbling, underground springs, and, of course, the infamously polluted Collect Pond. But these sources were spreading disease and clearly inadequate for a city whose international profile was raising thanks to the Erie Canal.

The solution lay miles north of the city in the Croton River. New York engineers embarked on one of the most ambitious projects in the city’s history — to tame the Croton, funnelling millions of gallons of waters through an aqueduct down to Manhattan, where it would be collected and stored in grand, Egyptian-style reservoirs to serve the city’s needs.

This is the story of both the old and new Croton Aqueducts, and of the many landmarks that are still with us — from New York’s oldest surviving bridge to a former Bronx racetrack that was turned into a gigantic reservoir.

FEATURING: An entire town moved on logs, a famous writer’s strange musings on Irish laborers, the birth of a banking titan, and guest appearances by Isaac Newton, DeWitt Clinton, and Gouverneur Morris (or, at least, men who share those names).

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Water for New York: The Croton Aqueduct


A fireman’s map of New York in 1834, detailing the location of the city water supply, in cisterns and hydrants fueled by the 13th Street Reservoir. (NYPL)

Wall Street in 1847. The Manhattan Company is at 40 Wall Street. Founded by Aaron Burr ostensibly as a public works to distribute water, the Company soon shed its water responsibilities to become a full-fledged financial institution.

The Croton Dam and the start of the aqueduct system. After a partial collapse in 1841, the dam was quickly rebuilt for the opening of the entire system the following year. Today, the location of this dam is submerged under the current Croton. (NYPL)

Examples of the various tunnels created to accommodate the various topographical challenges encountered during construction. Miles of these water tunnels were constructed by a team mostly comprised of Irish laborers. (NYPL)

The glorious High Bridge, the oldest surviving bridge in New York — although much of it has been replaced and quite altered. (NYPL)

High society flocked to Jerome Park Racetrack on the weekends in the 19th century. But the park was turned into a reservoir at the beginning of the 1900s. (NYPL)

Also: please see my post from yesterday The Art of the Reservoir for pictures of some of the receiving and distributing reservoirs used in the Croton system and others through the New York region.

The art of the reservoir, New York’s forgotten architecture

The Fortress of Fifth Avenue: the Murray Hill Reservoir

We share a lot of the same needs as New Yorkers of the past, but we’ve just gotten better at hiding the unpleasant ones.  There are a great many mental institutions and specialized medical facilities in the city; they just aren’t in creepy, old Gothic buildings anymore. Prisons are out on islands or in nondescript beige towers flaunting only the barest hint of iron bars. We don’t dress them up in Egyptian morbidity like the famous Tombs prison of Five Points.

Our trains and our electricity reside underground, and so does our water, mostly. There are only a few places that seem to suggest that New York City’s water supply doesn’t just magically appear. Water towers dot the skyline, recalling romantic comic book landscapes, while water treatment plants, spread mostly through the outer boroughs, obviously do not. Then there are the reservoirs, the grandest of these, the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx, is a landmarked structure of enormous, albeit hidden, beauty. It’s currently drained and sitting like the Earth’s largest off-season swimming pool.

But New Yorkers used to live with their water, contained in reservoirs meant to evoke might, sophistication and security. After all, New York only got fresh water from the Croton Aqueduct in 1842; before that, it was mostly obtained from wells, cisterns, and that nasty old Collect Pond. People were proud of their new water system, so why not show it off?

Here’s a gallery of New York’s old 19th century reservoirs. In tomorrow’s podcast, we’ll elaborate on the marvelous story on how the city got its water:

The Manhattan Company reservoir on Chambers Street was opened in 1801 and was quickly deemed inadequate. Looks lovely though. If it were still around — it was demolished in the early 1900’s — it would probably be a nightclub today.

13th Street ReservoirOpened in 1830 as a water-pooling resource for fire fighting, it pumped water to hydrants on Broadway, the Bowery and other streets, but was little help in stopping the blazes of the Great Fire of 1835.

The Yorkville reservoir, how it looked on its opening in 1842. It was located between 79th and 86th Streets and between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Many years later, was surrounded by Central Park and was later torn down to become the park’s Great Lawn. What does remain, however, is….

…the Central Park receiving reservoir, built in the 1850s and, unlike the Yorkville, incorporated into the park’s designs. Today it’s named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who lived nearby and frequently jogged around it.

The spectacular High Bridge, part of the Croton system, with its adjoining smaller reservoir and water tower, serving the needs of residents of Manhattan’s higher elevations.

The grand Murray Hill Reservoir, probably the most popular of the reservoirs with 19th century tourists. Situated on land that had held the fabulous Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in 1858), the reservoir was demolished in the 1890s to make room for Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

Brooklyn was maintained in the 19th century in two reservoirs, one in Ridgewood and the other high atop Mount Prospect, although the ultimate source of the water came from a variety of places.

An issue of Scientific American in 1906, celebrating ‘the concreting’ of the Bronx’s Jerome Park Reservoir which opened that year and contained portions of both the old and new Croton Aqueduct systems.

The 1917 Silver Lake reservoir in Staten Island was constructed, like the Central Park reservoir, to be a functional feature of a park setting.

Pictures courtesy the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum and the Library of Congress. Thanks as always to these institutions. The Scientific American can be found here.