By the 1830s, New York City simply didn’t have enough water. Devastating fires regularly swept through whole swaths of old buildings made mostly of wood. The limited number of wells, cisterns, and natural springs could not keep pace with the city’s steady rise in population after the Revolutionary War. In addition, these formerly fresh supplies of drinking water were becoming contaminated and polluted, leading to epidemics of such deadly diseases as yellow fever and, in 1832, cholera.
In the preceding decades, various plans and proposals to secure an abundant source of fresh water had all failed. But in an April 1835 referendum, the public voted for a new plan to bring in water from the Croton River in northern Westchester.
Construction on the Croton Aqueduct began two years later and culminated in a grand opening in Lower Manhattan in 1842. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the engineering marvel that brought millions of gallons of fresh water each day to city residents. Design and construction of the aqueduct were based on the same engineering principles that the Romans used to build their aqueducts: Let gravity do the work. Through each of its 41 miles into New York City, the gravity-fed tube drops a gentle 13 inches. The challenge for its surveyors, engineers, and builders was to maintain that exact gradient through a wide range of terrains through the county. That meant blasting through rock, plowing through hillsides, and crossing valleys and streams along the way.
The five-year construction of the complex water-distribution system, largely by Irish immigrant labor, also involved damming the Croton River, building aqueducts, laying the pipes, and building massive holding tanks in Manhattan to hold the water.
For most of its run, the Croton Aqueduct, now known as the Old Croton Aqueduct, is a horseshoe-shaped elliptical tube made of iron piping encased in brick masonry that stands 8.5’ tall and 7.5’ wide. An earthen cover protects it, along with stone facing and occasionally cement at embankment walls. Conical ventilating towers were added every mile or so, to relieve pressure and keep the water fresh. Some of these towers along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail are still visible today.
The water in the Aqueduct traveled 41 miles south, from northern Westchester’s Croton Dam to the Harlem River. Eventually, it ran over the High Bridge (now the city’s oldest), which spans the Harlem River at 173rd Street and wasn’t completed until 1848, six years after the aqueduct’s opening. In the interim, water crossed the river through temporary, low-level pipes.
Then the pipes ran down the West Side of Manhattan to a massive rectangular Receiving Reservoir located between 79th and 86th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The Receiving Reservoir, which, at 1,826’ long and 836’ wide, resembled an imposing fortress, held up to 180 million gallons of water, with an astonishing 35 million gallons flowing into it daily from northern Westchester.
From the Receiving Reservoir, the water then flowed down to the Distributing Reservoir (also known simply as the Croton Reservoir), a similar fortification at Fifth Avenue, between 40th and 42nd Streets, the current site of the New York Public Library. It was built to resemble ancient Egyptian architecture and became an attraction for New Yorkers and tourists alike for the expansive city views from atop its walls.
Croton water first entered the new aqueduct at 5 a.m. on June 22, 1842, followed by a 16’ skiff dubbed the Croton Maid. Twenty-two hours later, the Croton Maid arrived with the first water at the Harlem River gateway. The following month, Croton water began to flow into the city’s water mains, which had been built by the city while the aqueduct was under construction.
At about the same time, the German cockroach was first attracting attention in the homes of New Yorkers. It became known as the “Croton bug” because of the mistaken belief that the aqueduct brought the insects into the homes being connected to the new water supply system.
On October 14, 1842, the Croton Aqueduct opened officially to great fanfare. A parade and daylong celebration ended in a grand finish — a fountain spouted water upward 50 feet in the newly built Croton Fountain in City Hall Park. An impressive array of dignitaries joined in the opening festivities, including President John Tyler, former Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, and Governor William Seward.
Originally built to meet the city’s needs for 100 years, the Croton Aqueduct’s water supply soon became insufficient, thanks to the city’s spiraling population growth. The New Croton Aqueduct, triple the size of the original and much deeper underground, lies a few miles to the east. It opened in 1890 and remains in service today.
The Receiving Reservoir continued to supply the city with drinking water until 1940, when, under the direction of master builder and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, it was drained and filled to make way for Central Park’s Great Lawn.