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

Old Croton Dam painting by Ossining resident Robert Havell.

In 1842 New York City had completed and placed into service its first water supply project, the construction of the Old Croton Dam and Old Croton Aqueduct. The city was now a metropolis of more than 600,000 people, a busy, bewildering placed with confused heaps of buildings, spires, steeples, a forest of ships' masts, crowded steam ferries and a population that traveled back and forth, never idle.

New York City, ca. 1860.

The demand from so many people and their businesses put great pressure on the new water supply. The city complained that the average per capita consumption of 60 gallons was three times greater than it could supply. Water consumption continued to soar, resulting in the city’s purchasing land for a new reservoir in today’s Central Park. It was named Lake Manahatta, opened in 1862, and dubbed “the largest artificial lake in the world.”

1842 Receiving Reservoir on left; new Reservoir on right, ca. 1860.

The city continued to deal with two serious demons: fire, the terror that had motivated the government to develop a reliable water source; and drought, which curtailed the amount of water in the Croton watershed. Progress towards solving the growing water shortage began in 1865 when the state legislature in Albany empowered the Water Commissioners to acquire land in Westchester, Dutchess and Putnam counties. Over the next 40 years some 8,000 acres would be condemned for city water supply and protection.

Fire aftermath in downtown Manhattan, 1860.

By 1891 the city’s exploding population had reached 1.5 million. Daily water consumption was up to 150 million gallons. The strain on the Old Croton Aqueduct, Dam and Reservoir was clear. Something had to be done. City engineers quickly proposed that a new Croton reservoir, aqueduct and dam be constructed. This quest for more water was the start of a string of dam building between 1888 and 1907 that included the New Croton Aqueduct and New Croton Cornell Dam.

Panoramic view of Manhattan dated 1890.

The impact of these projects was devastating—prime farm land, industrial sites and villages were eradicated. Putnam County alone saw a decline in population of 3,000 residents during the reservoir extension period.

Land in Putnam County for the New Croton Reservoir.

In 1884 engineers began surveying to determine the best route for a new subsurface aqueduct, three times the carrying capacity of the 1842 tube, running 33 miles from the Old Croton Dam to the High Bridge on the Harlem River in the Bronx. It would be horseshoe shaped, built of masonry, brick-lined, average depth 125 feet beneath the surface, 13 feet high and wide. Completed in 1891 it would be the largest and longest water conduit in the world at that time.

Workers on the New Croton Reservoir, ca. 1885.

The New Croton Reservoir, consuming thousands of acres, would take 14 years to complete and include 18 collecting reservoirs with accompanying dams throughout Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties. Much activity centered around communities being displaced, with homes and businesses being moved away from streams and lakes.

Overview of New Croton Reservoir in Northern Westchester County.

Villages like Katonah had stores, houses, offices and barns physically relocated to a new site about a mile away from their original location. The new Katonah became one of the first planned hamlets in the nation, featuring wide streets, main boulevard, central landscaped promenade, and businesses located on side and parallel avenues.

Moving more than 50 houses in Katonah, 1897.

The New Croton Dam had been discussed since the early 1880s. Engineers presented plans calling for a high masonry structure located some four miles south of the Old Croton Dam near today’s Quaker Bridge on the Croton River. Opinions differed on site location, profile and height of the new dam. After much debate the Water Commissioners decided to construct the impoundment of water three miles downriver from the first dam, one mile up from Quaker Bridge, on land owned by Aaron Cornell where bedrock was closer to the surface.

One draft for the design of the New Croton Dam.

A contract for $4 million was awarded to the Coleman Engineering Company with the estimated time of completion seven years. In fact it would take 13 years with the final cost rising to $15 million. Following is an 1892 outline of the project:

Engineers at Coleman & Coleman Company about 1905.

“The dam is to be half masonry (stone and cement), half earth, consisting of a 600 foot masonry portion, 200 feet high, 216 feet thick at the bottom, and 18 feet wide at the top. A 600 foot earthen section will extend from the central masonry dam to the south side of the valley. A masonry spillway, 1,000 feet long, will run at right angles from the main masonry dam on its north side. A 20-foot wide roadway will run along the top of the dam. A gatehouse will draw water from the reservoir and control the flow of water through the new aqueduct.”

A 1905 view of the nearly completed New Croton Dam.

If the spillway had gone over the front of the new dam, like the old structure upstream, heavy flows could have undermined the dam’s footings. Engineers devised a peculiar sideways spillway which dumped water down a massive set of stone steps onto a seam of bedrock below.

New Croton Dam spillway.

To make way for the project, dwellings, barns, stores, churches, mills and cemeteries were condemned to clear space for construction. Graves were moved to new locations in northern Westchester. Bridges, railroad tracks and roads were torn down and rebuilt. A safety margin border was cleared around the edge of the reservoir to prevent contamination of the water. It took four years to excavate a diversion channel for the Croton River so that the foundation could be excavated and the masonry laid.

New Croton Dam diversion channel, circa 1900.

In the spring of 1889 a catastrophe unfolded in the community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. A 72-foot high earthen dam collapsed, sending a wall of water crashing down on a valley surrounding Johnstown. Over 2,000 people died, 1,600 homes and 300 businesses destroyed. Engineers from the New Croton Dam project were dispatched to Pennsylvania, not only to assist the recovery effort but to study the cause.

Result of the massive Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889.

The following year, 1900, cracks were actually discovered in the unfinished masonry core wall of the earthen section of the new dam which led to fears that the structure would not remain watertight. Engineers reported to the Water Commissioners, “We express doubts about its stability and recommend that a significant portion of the earth dam be replaced with masonry, to guard against disaster and to satisfy the general feeling of security in the public mind.” Work was suspended, the core wall already completed was torn out and replaced with masonry. Engineers were concerned that a flood similar to the one that occurred in 1841, washing away a section of the first Croton Dam and damaging the lower Croton River valley, might be repeated.

Stone masons working on the New Croton Dam, ca. 1900.

An interesting description of dam-building was offered by a New York Times reporter who visited the site:

“Upon the dam’s stone work there are some 40 large derricks and their accompanying engines. The engines handle the immense blocks of stone being put in place by hundreds of workmen. From these great cables stone, cement and sand are constantly being lowered down into the foundation’s large cavity. The structure is surrounded with narrow gauge railroad tracks upon which run platform cars drawn by small steam locomotives that haul the stone in from quarries a few miles from the dam.

Foundation of the massive structure, ca. 1900.

“By close observation, men looking as small as ants on an anthill, and quite busy, may be seen. A little engine comes puffing into sight drawing platform cars upon which are great blocks of stone. The train stops, from one of the great derrick cables above a chain descends, reaches one of the cars, and is fastened to an immense block of stone.

A typical workday at the New Croton Dam in 1902.

“Three cableways stretch across the valley. Small railroad cars carry rubble, boulders and earthen fill from one side to the other. Later, the same system [railroad cars] is utilized to deliver masonry and supplies to the work site. The cableways are also put into action loaded with baskets and buckets that transport materials on wheel rails using a pulley. In a minute our stone block is being raised toward the cable. At the proper time it stops in its upward movement and begins to travel across the wide ravine suspended from the cable.

Steam powered derricks and intricate scaffolding.

“Again it stops and is quickly lowered down upon the stone work to become part and parcel of the great structure, there to remain for all time. On the south bank, high up over the scenes of operations, are the shanties of the boilers and engines that operate the great cables. Engineers obey signals using electric bells just as on board a ship. Masonry work proceeds year round. Salt is added to the cement and sand heated in steam-coiled boxes during the cold weather. The stone work is covered with thick sheets of canvas to keep it from freezing.

Wide view of New Croton Dam nearing completion in 1905.

“In order to bring stone to the work site from nearby quarries, the city leased land on which is constructed a narrow gauge railroad running seven miles, moving material in flat cars called ‘dinghies’ which have no sides or top. Daily a dozen steam locomotives with up to 100 cars make their way back and forth from the quarries. Large amounts of building materials are moved up and down the Hudson River by steamboat and rail.

Construction at the base of New Croton Dam, ca. 1905.

Once they arrive at docks located in Croton Landing, horses and mules are rented from nearby stables and everything is transported to the dam location.”

Locomotive, draft horses and workers near the dam in 1905.

Part 3 / Water Over the Dam >