Croton Aqueduct Celebrates 175th Anniversary
Water from the Croton Aqueduct first flowed into New York City’s water distribution system 175 years ago on July 4th 1842. The arrival of its pure wholesome water from the Croton River in upstate Westchester County was one of the most significant events in the city’s history. Over 25,000 people gathered to witness the opening of the gates that released the water from the aqueduct into the receiving reservoir at 86th Street and the distribution reservoir at 42nd Street, then on the outskirts of the inhabited city. Guns were fired to mark each mile of the water’s journey and the fireworks marking Independence Day had special significance for New Yorkers that year.
Before the Croton Aqueduct, the city had wrestled with its water problem for well over fifty years. Surrounded by salt water, the city relied on groundwater that was brought to the surface by wells and surface water that was sourced from small streams and ponds. By the mid-1700s these limited water sources were increasingly contaminated by pollution that seeped into the ground and drained directly into ponds and streams. Drinking and bathing in dirty water exposed New Yorkers to diseases like dysentery, typhoid and cholera. In fact, the cholera epidemic that swept the city in 1832 killing 3,515 out of a population of 250,000 was instrumental in persuading the New York State Legislature to approve the Croton water project. Fire was another constant threat for the densely built city because firefighting requires two things, sufficient water and a reliable distribution pipe system to get the water to where it is needed. The city lacked both and in December 1835, one year before the start of the Croton Aqueduct construction, a devastating fire overtook the financial district destroying 20 blocks and over 600 buildings, severely threatening the economic survival of New York City.
Construction on the Croton Aqueduct began in 1837 and would only take six years to complete the major components required to bring water to the city. A water supply that could be relied on during seasons when there was less rainfall was created by building a dam across the Croton River to create a reservoir. Water was transported from the reservoir inside the Croton Aqueduct that snaked its way south along the contours of the land all the way maintaining the steady decline of one foot per mile necessary to deliver water 41 miles to the city solely by gravity. The project employed hundreds of workers, many of them immigrants, all along the line of the aqueduct. Brick was replaced with iron pipes to cross valleys including the Harlem River, eventually atop the High Bridge that was completed in 1848. Water was transported to hydrants and consumers within New York City by a distribution system of cast iron pipes that was built following the pattern of the street grids in the same way it is done today.
Celebrated as a major engineering achievement, the Croton Aqueduct was the first water supply system in the United States, and possibly anywhere since the Roman aqueducts, of its scale and complexity that transported water across a great distance by gravity. When the Croton Aqueduct was first put into service in 1842 it was capable of delivering 100 million gallons of water per day to a population of over 312,000. Within ten years, skyrocketing population growth and water consumption rates spurred the city to begin planning to increase the amount of water being delivered to the city, decades sooner than anticipated. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the early 20th century more reservoirs were built in the Croton Watershed and a second aqueduct, the New Croton Aqueduct, was introduced in 1891. When New York City became a five borough city in 1898 its population grew to 3.4 million and by 1906 work was underway to build the Catskill Aqueduct which this year celebrates 100 years since it was put into full service in 1917. By the 1920s the population was nearing 6 million when the city started planning for the Delaware Aqueduct that first delivered water in 1943.
The Old Croton Aqueduct stopped delivering water to New York City in the 1950s, but its watershed and the reservoirs in it continue to be a critical component of the city’s current day water supply. And, when the Delaware Aqueduct is temporarily shut down to complete repairs in 2022, the Croton System will become even more critical. In 1968 its path between the Bronx and the New Croton Dam became part of the New York State park system known as the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park with public access for biking and hiking. In 1992 the aqueduct was awarded National Historic Landmark status. More recently the Keeper’s House was restored by New York State Parks with help from the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct. The house, now a museum and education center, is open to visitors.