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Watering the Metropolis

By Carl Oechsner
Edited by Gretchen Bock

Part 1 | The Early Years (1600-1842)

Central Park with Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir in background.

The provision of water for New York City is one of the most elaborate feats of civil engineering in the history of North American urbanization, whose early roots can be traced to the magnificent aqueducts of the ancient world.

New York City, ca. 1850.

Cities, like other living things, need water to survive, and even more water to flourish. As they grow, so does their thirst, which must be quenched, usually from rivers beyond their limits.

The boundaries of New York City, confined to southern Manhattan during its first two centuries, were no exception.

Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam, settled 1609.

It would take generations of foul wells, epic filth, epidemic disease, devastating fires, frustrating politics and engineering uncertainty, before the completion of the monumental effort to water the island city from the mainland Croton River. Only then did Gotham obtain a level of water equal to its fame.

The Great Fire of 1835 which destroyed 674 Manhattan buildings.

In the early 1600s the natural water supply of Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, and later on English New York, was derived from brooks, ponds and springs which abounded on the island of Manhattan. The earliest supply of drinking water came from shallow wells—some private, some public. The wells were not only completely unpleasant to the taste, but were also highly unsanitary.

English colony of New York in 1650.

The movement for a municipal water supply received powerful stimulus from great fires that raked the city, and health epidemics which killed hundreds. For much of its early history, New York was a parched city.

Yellow fever epidemic, 1832.

The largest direct water supply was a stinking seventy acre pond around what is now Foley Square near Canal Street. For over a hundred years it quenched the thirst of Manhattanites. The Dutch called it “Kolk”, meaning “small body of water”, which the English changed to “Collect”. Drinking from this source became a health risk. Yet the city’s residents, desperately thirsty, had no other recourse. Revulsion to the Collect rose in direct proportion to the increase in population.

The Collect, or Fresh Water Pond, ca. 1800.

By 1813 the Collect had disappeared under the landfill from builders who constructed the Five Point slum where the pond had been. Leakage from privies and graveyards spread from well to well. Numerous attempts were made to initiate water companies. Most of the time the systems that were attempted did not work and were open to political corruption.

The Five Points district in 1830, disease-ridden and crime-infested.

The taste of city water spawned the soda water industry. In 1828 the price was 3 cents for a tumbler of artificially carbonated water mixed with a dose of lemon syrup.

1828 newspaper advertisement.

Those who wanted a stronger draft supported the growing numbers of taverns and breweries, resulting in a scarcity of good water and indirectly encouraging public intoxication, rowdiness, crime and vice.

Manhattan waterfront about 1835.

1832 was a pivotal year. Without knowing exactly how cholera was spread, New Yorkers knew it was coming, having heard of its progress from India to Europe to Britain to Canada. Of the thousands living in the city, half fled, carrying cholera into the interior. By the time the epidemic had receded, some 4,000 New Yorkers had died. More than any other single event, the cholera of 1832 forced the city to face up to its foremost technological challenge: it must find a way to supply itself with clean water or it would wither away.

Newspaper ad printed in 1832.

Realizing that the city would some day number a million or more souls, that rivers near the city were too shallow and could not possibly supply a large population, the only practical source, whatever the cost, was the deep fresh Croton River in Westchester County.

Downtown Manhattan around 1835.

The Board of Water Commissioners called for a public bond issue: “It seems necessary to rouse our citizens, to call out a strong sentiment in favor of the water measure.” The proposition was approved in a landslide—17,330 to 5,963. The year was 1835.

New York City Board of Water Commissioners in 1835.

The city quickly hired the distinguished West Point engineer David Bates Douglas to design and build a dam, reservoir and aqueduct for conveying Croton River water to the city.

Engineer David Bates Douglas, 1835.

After surveying the potential watershed, Douglas wrote: “The Croton River is capable of supplying one million people with an inexhaustible supply of water. It is not probable that the city will ever require more than it can provide.” Due to political and personal conflict between Douglas and the Water Commission, he was fired in 1836.

The Croton River below Quaker Bridge.

The Commission began their search for a replacement, “a practical engineer who can make a big idea happen on schedule.” They found John Bloomfield Jervis, one of the engineers who had built the Erie Canal, the technological achievement that triumphed over all others of its day, built between 1817 and 1825.

The 363 mile Erie Canal with 36 locks, stretching from Albany to Buffalo.

The canal became an impromptu school of American engineering, producing a generation of designers who went on to build many of the nation's canals and railroads.

John Bloomfield Jervis in 1837 at age 41.

John B. Jervis would become the star of the Erie Canal engineers, a breed of men who, with little formal education, rose to professional leadership through practical experience and devoted independent study. At 41 years of age, Jervis was among those who believed the glass was half full, not half empty. In the fall of 1836 the city hired him as Chief Engineer of the Croton project.

Jervis soon wrote, “The enterprise of the Croton Aqueduct is an improvement for which there is no specific experience in this country or hardly any in modern times.”

The Old Croton Aqueduct passing through the City of Yonkers.

As city surveyors marched through Westchester, some 200 property owners whose land would be flooded by the new dam or crossed by the aqueduct filed complaints in area courts. They were handsomely compensated for their trouble, the city paying $250,000 for land worth $60,000.

A family living along Old Croton Aqueduct property in Yorktown.

The work began six miles up the Croton River from the Hudson with the construction of the 55 foot high Croton Dam, which backed the river up into a five mile long reservoir. From this huge holding tank, water would enter a channel below the dam and begin the gentle descent to the city, first along the south bank of the Croton, then along the east bank of the Hudson, through Ossining, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings and Yonkers, finally sweeping inland through the Bronx to the Harlem River, crossing into Manhattan and finishing at today’s Central Park.

Old Croton Dam in 1842.

At the site of the new dam Jervis had a moment of anxiety. It was December 1840 and two heavy snowfalls hit just before Christmas. The Hudson and lower Croton Rivers were closed by ice. A third storm followed as below zero readings blasted the area. On January 5, 1841, a dramatic thaw occurred, followed by heavy rains. Melting snow and rain swelled the Croton River to the bursting point. Alarmed farmers in the valley below prepared for the worst.

Old Croton Dam – Yorktown to the left, Ossining to the right.

A section of the dam collapsed early the next morning. Every bridge on the lower Croton River was destroyed, navigation on the river was permanently set back, and damages to property totaled $700,000. The dam, however, was quickly redesigned and repaired and would last until 1906, to be ultimately replaced by the New Croton Dam three miles downstream. In 1973 the Old Croton Dam was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as an underwater archaeological site.

The Croton Aqueduct was to be 33 miles long, horseshoe shaped, 8.5 feet high, 7.5 feet wide, with a floor resting on a stone foundation, with walls made of crushed stone, brick and hydraulic cement. Jervis wrote, “The nearer the tube comes to a horseshoe shape, the least resistance the water will meet with its flow. It will scour the bottom and keep it from sediments.” The aqueduct was built on a “cut and cover” plan which meant the pipe was laid in a trench, covered with earth, leaving only a long mound to show those at ground level where the channel was, save for small ventilating towers that rose every mile to provide air for the buried conduit.

Cross section of Old Croton Aqueduct – engineer drawing, 1840.

Immense physical labor was required, most done by unskilled Irish workers. Rules prohibited the sale of liquor to workers, but farmers, spotting a captive and thirsty market, broke them. The city said, “The love of money has induced certain individuals, regardless of the injury inflicted on others, to open places for the laborers where this enemy of man may be obtained in any quantity for a price.” Some local farmers thought the Irish workers to be “a civil people”, but most felt they were “objectionable from every angle, moral, behavioral, linguistic and hygienic.”

Stone masons and bricklayers.

It dawned on many that the aqueduct was more than a purely utilitarian contrivance for getting water into Manhattan. A work of enduring beauty, a symbol of man’s capacity to master his environment, was emerging in the Westchester countryside. A country editor said, “It is surprising to observe how beauty and solidity are blended in the construction of this stupendous work. I think it will be visited by foreigners not only as a model but as an illustration of what the ingenuity of man led on by the pure light of science can accomplish. They will admire the gigantic undertaking and the boldness of conception.”

Arch of aqueduct crossing the Sing-Sing Kill in Ossining, 1845.

The Water Commission took note. “No population ever before voluntarily decreed that they would execute such a work. No population but one of freemen would have conceived the idea. Its purpose was not protection from external foes, but to making our inhabitants happier, more temperate, and more healthful. We contemplate that countless millions hereafter will enjoy the benefits of this water, will have clear heads, correct eyes, strong arms, breasts so robust and hearts so brave, that in a just cause our city may defy all foreign foes.”

View of New York City, ca. 1860.

In June 1842, the $12 million aqueduct was ready to be tested. For three days members of the city’s Engineering Department walked the distance of the conduit inspecting the entire line. Croton water was first sent to the metropolis with characteristic devotion to 19th century ceremony. The pageantry began at 5 a.m. on June 22 when John Jervis ordered water released from the Croton River at the dam into the aqueduct. A flow 18 inches deep went on its way. Four men set a long wooden raft named the “Croton Maid” in the pipe and hopped aboard. In several legs they rode the flow down to the Harlem River. Jervis and three members of the Water Commission made the final leg into the city.

Close-up of Old Croton Aqueduct – conduit made of bricks with stone supporting walls.

On June 27 the aqueduct was fully opened and water was sent into the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir at today’s Central Park. State Governor William Seward and a crowd of 20,000 residents heard 38 guns salute the first freshet of water spilled across the floor of the new reservoir.

Central Park Receiving Reservoir, 1843.

On July 4 the flow was sent on to the distributing reservoir at Murray Hill, today the site of the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Forty-five cannons boomed as the first water spilled into the tanks. It was so early in the morning that not many were there to see that it was a little muddy. One observer was engineer Fayette Tower, who wrote, “At an hour when the morning guns had roused but few from their dreamy slumbers, and ere yet the rays of the sun had gilded the city’s domes, I stood on the topmost wall of the receiving reservoir and saw the first rush of water, as it entered the bottom and wandered about, as if each particle had consciousness.”

City Distributing Reservoir, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

Some 25,000 residents visited the reservoir that evening. All were offered a “Croton Cocktail,” water with a twist of lemon. On October 14 a quarter million people crowded Broadway in the city’s greatest parade to date, marching from the Battery to Union Square, where a new fountain spouted Croton water in a dance of shimmering shapes.

New York City parade and celebration 1842 – the opening of the Old Croton Aqueduct.

For homeowners, the cost of installing their own pipes was high. Although the price of water itself was only $10 per two-story household per year, family usage remained low for a time. After three years, only one in four residents had signed up for service, though many more took clean water from free public hydrants located throughout the city.

Croton water becomes part of daily life.

An 1845 study found that Croton water had far less solid matter than previous water sources. Another indicator of the quality of Croton liquid was not so positive. One woman pointed out, “Our new water makes it necessary to spike it with spirits to make it palatable.” Another citizen added, “There’s nothing new in town except Croton water, which is full of tadpoles and odd looking creatures, and moreover flows through an aqueduct which I hear is used as a necessary by the Hibernian vagabonds working on it.” And finally this: “I shall not drink Croton’s water for time to come. My close friend Jedediah Post has drunk some and is in dreadful apprehension of breeding bullfrogs within.”

New York City in 1850.

Part 2 / New City, Old Troubles (1842-1900) >