Trail Notes: Walking Manhattan’s Old Water System

The High Bridge water tower at 172nd Street

The High Bridge water tower at 172nd Street

New York City is continuously remaking itself, and the remains of the Old Croton Aqueduct system are a testament to the coming and going of one of the most stunning feats of engineering of its time. And, as New York does, it simply replaces one amazing thing with something bigger, better, and newer.

The Old Croton Aqueduct supplied Manhattan with water between 1842 and 1959, bringing water from the Croton Dam and reservoir in Westchester County some 41 miles through a gravity-fed system of iron pipes into the City. We still get our water from the Croton Watershed, but the system has changed significantly and includes other water sources to sustain the population of all five boroughs. But it’s well worth marveling at the system of aqueducts and reservoirs that once provided Manhattan with safe, clean drinking water–an engineering marvel of its day.

Along with another great group, I walked the path of the Old Croton Aqueduct. We began the hike at the New York Public Library’s Main Branch, which was once the site of a four-acre distribution reservoir that supplied Manhattan’s homes and businesses. (Bryant Park was once called Reservoir Park.)  We walked up 5th Avenue to 79th Street and entered Central Park, walking the edge of the Great Lawn–which was the site of the Croton Reservoir before the park construction began, and was filled in and redesigned in 1931. The remains of brick walls reportedly can still be found around the Great Lawn, but it was hard to find any among a crowded park of people enjoying NYC’s greatest outdoor space.

Old Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse

Old Croton Aqueduct Gate House at 119th and Amsterdam

From Central Park, we went west to Amsterdam Avenue and walked up for a stop to explore St. John the Divine Cathedral (unrelated to the Croton Aqueduct), then continued on to take a look at two of the old gate houses that are still standing. One, at 113th and Amsterdam, is now a nursing home. Another, at 119th and Amsterdam, is locked up like an old haunted house. On both buildings we saw the bench marks indicating each site’s elevation in the gravity-fed system.

Benchmark at

Bench mark

We followed the old aqueduct path all the way up Amsterdam to 172nd Street in Washington Heights to the water tower at High Bridge, where the water came over the Harlem River from the Bronx as the City’s first bridge connecting boroughs. High Bridge is under renovations, but will soon be reopened as a foot path for urban hikers like us (and other City residents, too) to cross between Manhattan and the Bronx.

All told, the route from 42nd Street to High Bridge Park was just over 7 miles. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in NYC. For more on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, click HERE.

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