How a Massive Public Works Project Saved a Parched New York

“To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175” features 19th-century maps, drawings and artifacts, along with contemporary photographs, to illustrate an engineering feat that delivered potable water by gravity 41 miles to Manhattan from the Croton River in Westchester County.

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An engraving showing the aqueduct crossing the Harlem River.

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Museum of the City of New York

Manhattan was surrounded by water, of course, but it was brackish and undrinkable. By the 1800s, Lower Manhattan’s ponds and aquifers had already become polluted.

Meanwhile, the sources for potable water were diminishing.

Wells were being depleted. The Collect Pond was so contaminated by the runoff from tanneries and slaughterhouses that it had been filled in around 1811 to become the notorious Five Points slum.

As periodic summer epidemics plagued Manhattanites who would escape to their country homes in Greenwich Village, Dr. Joseph Browne — who happened to be Burr’s brother-in-law — warned that only an adequate supply of fresh water would “secure the health and wealth of the city.”

Construction of the Croton Aqueduct from a 500-million-gallon reservoir, created by damming the Croton River, began near what is now Ossining under the direction of John B. Jervis, the chief engineer and a veteran of the Erie Canal construction.

The exhibition includes original drawings of the aqueduct’s dams, bridges, tunnels and other features that Jervis had commissioned from Fayette B. Tower, an engineer and artist. His route along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail was retraced and reinterpreted by a modern photographer, Nathan Kensinger.

The project required construction of the first bridge linking Manhattan to the mainland, the arched High Bridge, which carried iron pipes 150 feet above the Harlem River.

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Inside the aqueduct. Though still in use, the Croton system now supplies less than 10 percent of the city’s water.

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Nathan Kensinger

As the work progressed into Manhattan, Tower wrote his mother, “I am now among the vanities — the follies and dissipation of the great City of New York.” Still, he assured her, “if on the other hand there be any good influence or advantages in this city they too are carried to the greatest extent.”

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