During the 1830s New York City was in dire need of a fresh water supply to combat the steady rise of disease and to fight numerous fires that often engulfed large tracts of businesses and homes. After numerous proposals and an abandoned plan two years into its production, construction of an unprecedented magnitude began in 1837 under the expertise of John Bloomfield Jervis. The proposed plan called for a 41 mile aqueduct and dam to be built in order to run water from the Croton River to New York City. Three to four thousand workers, mostly Irish immigrants earning up to $1.00 per day, completed the masonry marvel in just five years. In 1842 water flowed into above ground reservoirs located at the present sites of the New York Public Library and the Great Lawn of Central Park. Throngs of people attended the formal celebration held on October 14th and celebrated with "Croton cocktails" - a mix of Croton water and lemonade.
This 19th century architectural achievement cost New York City approximately 13 million dollars and was believed able to provide New Yorkers with fresh water for centuries to come. The population spiraled upward at a dizzying rate, however, and the Croton Aqueduct, which was capable of carrying 100 million gallons per day, could no longer meet New York City’s needs by the early 1880s. Construction of the New Croton Aqueduct began in 1885 and water began to flow by 1890. Although no longer the sole supplier of fresh water, the Old Croton Aqueduct continued to provide water to New York City until 1965.
In 1968, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation purchased 26.2 miles of the original 41 mile aqueduct from New York City. Presently, Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park is a linear park which runs from Van Cortlandt Park at the Bronx County/City of Yonkers border to the Croton Dam in Cortlandt. In 1987 a section was reopened to supply the Town of Ossining and in 1992 the Old Croton Aqueduct was awarded National Historic Landmark Status. The scenic path over the underground aqueduct winds through urban centers and small communities. It passes near numerous historic sites, preserves, a museum highlighting the construction of the Aqueduct, and many homes. The Aqueduct’s grassy ceiling provides abundant recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. While primarily for walking and running, parts of the trail are suitable for horseback riding, biking (except during “mud season”), bird watching, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.
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The Friends of Old Croton Aqueduct offer a detailed map and brochure to help visitors use the Aqueduct Trail to connect to numerous destinations in Westchester County. To purchase a brochure, please visit http://www.aqueduct.org/. Funds raised from the brochure help the Friends offer tours, programming and improvements for the park.
The Aqueduct was built to help supply water to New York City, owing in part to its inadequate water supply. Major David B. Douglass, a West Point engineering professor, was the project's first chief engineer. He was succeeded in 1836 by John B. Jervis of Rome, New York, whose experience was in canal and railroad building. Construction, begun in 1837, was carried out largely by Irish immigrant labor.
An elliptical tube 8 ½ feet high by 7 ½ feet wide, the Aqueduct is brick-lined for most of its length, with a coating of hydraulic cement at bridge crossings and outer walls of hammered stone. Designed on principles dating from Roman times, the gravity-fed tube, dropping gently 13 inches per mile, challenged its builders to maintain this steady gradient through a varied terrain.
To do so the Aqueduct was cut into hillsides, set level on the ground, tunneled through rock and carried over valleys and streams on massive stone and earth embankments and – at Sing Sing Kill, the Nepperhan (Saw Mill) River and Harlem River – across arched bridges. Typically it is partly buried, with a telltale mound encasing it. As one learns to read the "clues," an understanding of how the tunnel engages the landscape deepens the trail experience.
Croton water first entered the Aqueduct at 5 a.m. on June 22, 1842 (followed by a dauntless crew in a small boat, the Croton Maid) and emerged at the Harlem River 22 hours later. The water eventually filled two above-ground reservoirs – on the present sites of the Great Lawn in Central Park and the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue – to great civic rejoicing.
Built to meet the city's needs for 100 years, its capacity was soon exceeded by the spiraling population growth to which is contributed. The New Croton Aqueduct, triple the size, was started in 1885 a few miles to the east and began service in 1890. The Old Aqueduct supplied decreasing amounts of water until 1955. (The northernmost portion reopened in 1989 and continues to supply water to the Town of Ossining.)
While the state trailway designation ends at the New York City line, the Aqueduct continues for six to seven miles through the Bronx. There its green corridor, managed by New York City Parks & Recreation, follows a southward route through Van Cortlandt Park, past the east edge of Jerome Park Reservoir and along Aqueduct and University avenues to the famed High Bridge, which carried the water in iron pipes across the Harlem River to Manhattan to serve a growing metropolis.
The park was created in 1968 and encompasses the Westchester County section of the Old Croton Aqueduct, between Croton Gorge County Park and the Yonkers-New York City line. This 26.2-mile portion of the total 41-mile Aqueduct route became Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park, a recreational and cultural resource that appeals to a wide range of visitors. Tree-lined and grassy, traversing local villages and varied landscapes, the trail offers glimpses of historic and architectural treasures along the way. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Aqueduct is one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.