An Aqueduct for Gotham

Until engineers built the Croton Aqueduct, New York lacked a delivery system to bring fresh water to the city’s rapidly growing population

By JT Thomas 


The Yorkville Reservoir, now the Great Lawn in Central Park. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

The crowds at the Yorkville Reservoir—now the Great Lawn in Central Park—must have been anxious on the morning of June 23, 1842, wondering whether the Croton Aqueduct would succeed in bringing cool, much-needed water from upstate. Many in the throng were also likely speculating about what famous heads would roll if the aqueduct failed. The editors of the New York Herald had berated the city’s water commissioners for years because design and construction costs had exceeded $12 million, a staggering price for that time. Their skepticism would not abate until the first trickles of water emerged from the dark tunnel.

In New York City, audacious engineering feats are typically revealed in the rising skyline. But the city’s vertical growth in the 20th century could not have happened unless the underground foundation was properly laid in the 19th century and, more importantly, supplied with fresh water. Until the mid-1800s, clean water was scarce, cisterns and wells were polluted or depleted. In addition, the fresh waters of the Hudson, Harlem and East rivers were not fit to consume because the tidal flux of the Atlantic rendered them brackish.


A 1900 image of the High Bridge, which crosses the Harlem River and was completed as part of the Croton Aqueduct. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Croton Aqueduct was the arterial answer to the rapid urbanization of America’s first great city—the essential remedy for an increasingly congested Manhattan. Planning began in 1833, led by Lieutenant David Bates Douglass. In 1836 American railroad pioneer John B. Jervis replaced Douglass. Under Jervis’s guidance, the aqueduct was completed in less than five years.

The day before the waterway was to open, Jervis surveyed his handiwork. For 22 hours, he and three water commissioners made a maiden voyage through the Croton Aqueduct tunnel in a 16-foot wooden skiff christened the Croton Maid. Bearing torches, they surveyed the innards of the dark brick tunnel as they floated along the nascent current. Finally, they came out on the banks of the Harlem River.

A map of the Croton Aqueduct. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jervis must have been pleased with what he saw, because the following day the tunnel functioned as he intended it to. Water flowed into a series of temporary pipes and crossed under the Harlem River to enter Manhattan. When the first rivulets finally poured into the Yorkville Reservoir, the crowds cheered Jervis and the commissioners.

Over the next few months, water filled the receiving, equalizing, and distribution reservoirs in Manhattan, delivering more than 75 million gallons of water a day. Uninterrupted water service continued as Jervis oversaw the construction of the Ossining and Harlem River bridges and the numerous arches, tunnels, ventilators and embankments it took to fortify the aqueduct and ensure long-term, efficient delivery. By the end of the decade, more than a billion gallons of fresh water were delivered to New Yorkers each day.

Although Jervis had intended the aqueduct to provide sufficient water for 100 years, spiraling population growth forced the construction of the higher-capacity and pressurized underground New Croton Aqueduct a mere 50 years later. The Old Croton Aqueduct, however, remained in use until 1955, and in 1987 the upper stretch was resurrected for water delivery to the upstate community of Ossining.

The grandiose engineering of the Old Croton Aqueduct set the bar for all future New York City water projects, leading to a series of ambitious schemes in the Catskill Mountains and in the Delaware River watershed. Today, together, the Catskill and Delaware systems deliver more than 550 billion gallons of water daily to the Big Apple.

But as robust as the Delaware and Catskill systems are, modern-day New York City is not immune to drought and deficiencies. This reality has prompted discussion about the need to modernize the Croton dam and aqueduct infrastructure in the near future. Until then, the Old Croton Aqueduct, and the historic walking trail that now parallels it, will serve as a reminder of the early ambitions of the city and the constant and growing need for clean water in the buried infrastructure of this constantly rising city.

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