The Historic Croton Aqueduct System Celebrates its 175th Anniversary

We're raising a glass to the local source of NYC’s first reliable water supply.


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New Amsterdam in the 1660s consisted of a fort and a couple of hand-dug canals surrounded by salty rivers.

In the 1660s, the site of New York City was a Dutch fort perched on a few hand-dug canals. Like any settlement, its inhabitants needed water to survive. Surrounded by the salty Hudson River, they dug shallow wells and built rain-collecting cisterns. As the population grew over the following 200 years, those water sources became polluted: cholera and typhoid soon followed. Fire became a common threat, as there wasn’t easy access to enough water to control blazes. The Great Fire of 1835 alone wiped out a 20-block swath of buildings.

On July 4, 1842, crowds gathered as gates opened on a brand-new concept that brought life-giving water to the parched city: the Croton Aqueduct.

Damming up the Croton River created a reservoir for the clean, pure water that was so desperately needed. From there, the aqueduct began. A brick and cast-iron marvel of engineering, the aqueduct brought 100 million gallons of water a day to the city. It was built on a decline of a foot every mile, and thus was able to carry the water 41 miles purely by gravity, according to NYC Water.


The Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street (now the site of the NY Public Library) had imposing walls.

It emptied into the York Hill Receiving Reservoir, a 150-million-gallon-capacity rectangular reservoir located between 79th and 86th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues. From there, the water was carried to the Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (where the New York Public Library stands today). Cast-iron pipes, loosely following the street grids of today’s city, distributed the water to homes and hydrants. The city was saved.

About 20 years later, a billion-gallon reservoir was built just north of it, between 86th and 96th Streets. This reservoir (now named for the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) was first built in a rectangle, but was later modified in a curvilinear fashion, following the plan of the new Vaux/Olmstead-designed Central Park in which it sat. The original York Hill reservoir continued operation until the 1920s, when it was filled in, turfed over, and renamed the Great Lawn.

It wasn’t long until the need for more water surpassed even what that aqueduct could provide. The New Croton Aqueduct was built in 1891, and the Catskill Aqueduct (celebrating a big anniversary this year as well) began operating in 1917. By 1943, the Delaware Aqueduct came into operation to provide even more water.


A map of the Croton aqueduct system.

Now the old Croton Aqueduct, between the Bronx and the Croton Dam, is part of the state parks system, and visitors can walk atop the aqueduct system (and sometimes, even venture inside the old aqueduct on guided tours).

So the next time you turn the tap in the city, or bite into a NYC bagel or real New York pizza (the secret to their goodness is the water, no doubt), make a toast to the engineers who, 175 years ago, had the foresight to ensure NYC’s tap will never run dry.


For more insight on the aqueduct, check out Water for Gotham: A History, by Gerard Koeppel.


Photos by Wikimedia Commons
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