How New York City’s search for a clean water supply led to history-filled hiking opportunities
By Robert Ward, Trail Conference Volunteer
In the 1820s, New York City was confronted with a problem that could threaten the welfare of its citizens: a shortage of potable water. Facing rapid population growth, the city’s wells were running dry and becoming polluted. A commission was formed with instructions to go upstate and find a large, free-flowing river. Its members were instructed to purchase the land on either side of this stream so that a dam could be constructed, creating a reservoir of pure drinking water. The Croton River was chosen and John B. Jervis, one of America’s foremost engineers, was hired to oversee the construction of what is now known as the Old Croton Dam.
The dam itself, located a short distance upstream from the Taconic State Parkway Bridge, is a masonry dam with a core of earth. The original Croton Aqueduct, built mostly using a cut and cover method, starts a short distance east of the dam and travels to Ossining, through Yonkers, and into The Bronx. The route turns abruptly west to cross the High Bridge over the Harlem River—more on that modern marvel below—and turns right in Highbridge Park in Manhattan. The aqueduct travels south and ends in the Old Croton Reservoir, which is now the site of Bryant Park. Today, most of the route is owned by New York State as The Old Croton Aqueduct Trailway State Park.
The magnificent High Bridge, which connects Manhattan to The Bronx, was completed in 1848. It was designed by James Renwick, Jr., the architect of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and built by Jervis. It was constructed to resemble an old Roman aqueduct with five-foot-square stone granite columns marching across the broad valley of the Harlem River. However, in 1910, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted away a part of Marble Hill, creating the Harlem River Ship Canal, which required the removal of the bridge’s stone pillars. They were replaced by the modern steel arch bridge that you see today.
During the construction of the High Bridge for its original purpose of transporting water, one very large and two smaller pipes lay in the trough with cast iron “I” bars inserted at intervals in the sides to maintain the structure’s integrity. Dirt filled the rest of the area, and a brick walkway was laid in place to permit people to walk on the bridge. People did just that. They came by boat and wagon and even by New York and Hudson River Railroad train to walk on the bridge and take in the vista.
Less than 50 years after the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, New York City was very thirsty again. The old Croton Dam had outlived its usefulness for the ever-expanding metropolis. A new Croton Dam, with a spillway on the north side and an automobile road across the top, was constructed a few miles downstream. (Since Sept. 11, 2001, the road has been closed for security purposes.) Along with the new dam and reservoir, a new aqueduct, in the form of a bored tunnel, was constructed; this one has no surface features. Alas, not long after its construction, even this New Croton Dam and Reservoir were still not sufficient for the city’s water needs. But New York City’s want for other water sources is another story…
By 1955, the original aqueduct was leaking so badly that it was shut down and dewatered. In the 1970s, the Parks Department—now owners of the High Bridge—opted to close the walkway for safety reasons. Yet one group of citizens saw the bridge’s potential to continue serving modern-day residents.
Over 10 years ago, a grassroots initiative called the Highbridge Coalition was formed to try to persuade the Department of Parks to reopen the walkway. The group succeeded in getting Congressman Jose Serrano (Democrat-West Bronx) to release federal funds for the project, and in getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to set aside a $60 million escrow fund to be used to rehab the bridge, if necessary. A report examining the state of the High Bridge indicated that it was structurally sound, but the “I” bars were rusting out and needed to be replaced. On January 13, 2013, work began on restoring the High Bridge. Workers removed the walkway, saving each brick and even some of the dirt, and replaced the old “I” bars with new, stainless steel ones before putting everything back in place. On June 6, 2015, the High Bridge footpath was officially reopened to the public.
Walk the High Bridge
Here are some ideas for walks along the right-of-way of the Old Croton Aqueduct.
1. Take Metro-North to Ossining. Walk uphill and follow the Old Croton Aqueduct footpath as far as the New Croton Dam. Cross the dam and then walk west on NY-129 to Harmon. Return via Metro-North at the Croton-Harmon Station.
2. Start from 242nd Street and Broadway in The Bronx (end of the 1 subway train). Take the Bee Line #1 bus to Warburton & O’Dell Avenues in Yonkers and walk to the Aqueduct. You can follow the footpath, with several marked detours, almost to Tarrytown. The #1 bus, on Broadway, will bring you back.
3. Start at either Kingsbridge Road and Grand Concourse (D subway train) or Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue (4 subway train). Walk west and follow the aqueduct to University Avenue; cross the street. The Bronx Community College campus (not open on Sundays) has restrooms in the student union building and park benches for lunch. Follow University Avenue south, and just before 170th Street, pick up the path. Cross the High Bridge and follow the access path only as far as the playfield. Walk across to the retaining wall and either take the ramp or stairs up to Edgecomb Avenue. Cross the street at the corner and stay on the sidewalk, past the school, and you will come to 168th Street & Amsterdam Avenue. Walk one more block and you will see a staircase and elevator leading to the subway mezzanine. The A express subway train is against the wall. A short tunnel leads to the 1 subway train station.
The High Bridge is administered by NYC Parks & Recreation. Current hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Directions for reaching the bridge can be found on the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct and NYC Parks websites. The map/guide The Old Croton Aqueduct in New York City, published by Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, describes the route of the Aqueduct, the history, and sites along the way. It can be purchased from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference or from the Friends.