With great fanfare and a parade — running from Battery Park, past the fountain at City Hall Park, to Union Square and back downtown again — New York City residents celebrated a sight they had never seen before: fountains spraying water into the air.
It was Oct. 14, 1842, and the Croton Aqueduct finally was completed after five years.
“It was the first time New York City brought clean, fresh water from outside of the city’s boundaries,” said Susan Johnson, senior curatorial associate at The Museum of the City of New York. “Before they built the aqueduct, the city did not have a reliable source of water.”
Sure, the city is surrounded by the rivers, but they are brackish, Johnson said, and it’s impossible to pull good water from there.”
Now, 175 years later, The Museum celebrates that big day with “To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175,” which runs through Dec. 31. At nearly 50 pieces, the exhibition traces the history of the revolutionary waterway system through the notes and drawings of aqueduct engineer Fayette Tower.
Present-day pictures by photographer Nathan Kensinger show the aqueduct’s route and how the structure looks today.
Using the personal writings of Tower gave the project a personal touch, Johnson said. His words and letters serve as a companion at the exhibition as visitors see the project through the eyes of the engineer, who was about 20 at the time. Tower’s letters range from homesickness to excitement, as well as meeting a famed businessman who was pushing 80 at the time.
“I have scarcely had any time to think of anything but the Croton Aqueduct for two weeks past, but since we are filling our reservoirs with water,” Tower wrote in June 1842. “Yesterday was quite a glorious day on our work, and I had the satisfaction of meeting many distinguished individuals; (first) in the morning John Jacob Astor came to see the work, seated in a very low carriage so that he could step out without difficulty.”
As visitors walk through the exhibition, they got to see the aqueduct as more than just a structure but a project that changed the lives of not only those who built it, but those who benefitted from it.
As she put together the exhibition, Johnson herself was surprised at the exuberance of residents over the aqueduct at the time. The parade included invitations to “fire companies from around the region” and “every politician they could think of” to mark its opening.
Spanning 41 miles, running from the Croton River in Westchester County to Manhattan, the aqueduct was powered by gravity alone. It brought as much as 60 million gallons of water to the city each day.
The aqueduct ran into reservoirs at present-day locations like the New York Public Library at West 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and Central Park’s Great Lawn in Manhattan. However, the engineering marvel wasn’t enough to meet the New York’s demand for water, Johnson said.
“The city’s population just grew so quickly and grew so much that … they started to expand the system, and they built a whole new Croton Aqueduct in the 1890s,” she said.
That, in turn, was replaced beginning in 1907 with the Catskill Aqueduct, replaced in 1939 by the Delaware Aqueduct. That operated until 1955, Johnson said.
Today, more than 26 miles of the structure are part of the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park, which runs from Van Cortlandt Park at the Bronx-Yonkers border, to the Croton Dam in Cortlandt. It cost an estimated $13 million to build — or some $403 million today — using more than 3,000 workers, according to the park’s website.
With its arches reminiscent of an old Roman bridge, a portion of the aqueduct can be seen at High Bridge, which connects the Bronx at West 170th Street and University Avenue and Manhattan at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The bridge opened to pedestrians and cyclists in 2015.
As visitors learn about the aqueduct and one of the thousands of people involved in the project, Johnson hopes the knowledge will inspire a renewed appreciation for running water — a celebrated luxury 175 years ago.
“It’s so easy to turn on a tap and water comes out,” Johnson said. “Just think about the time when that wasn’t the case. Hopefully, it will help people understand that it’s not something you take for granted.”