Updated: Mar 23, 2020
New York City, with nearly 9 million residents would never have been able to develop and sustain itself as a metropolis without access to an expansive and high quality supply of fresh and clean water. In lieu of my annual "River-to-River" Walking Tour, I am posting this article which includes a narrative, photos and links which express the most important aspects of the tour.
World Water Day is observed annually on March 22 to raise awareness about the vital importance of water to safeguarding human security and maintaining the health of the planet's ecosystems. This year's theme, "Water and Climate Change," highlights not only the urgent importance of strengthening water security and establishing access to a sustainable water supply in the face of changing climate conditions worldwide, but also the many ways that shifting atmospheric and oceanic conditions are reshaping the global hydrologic cycle.
Increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water is a key objective of the U.S Government Global Water Strategy and USAID’s Water and Development Plan. In support of the water strategy, USAID seeks to provide 15 million people with sustainable access to drinking water services by 2022. Globally, 663 million people still lack access to safe drinking water sources—the very resource on which a healthy, productive life depends. Even for those who have access, services are often inadequate to meet basic needs.
Our tour starts in Riverside Park where we can take in the views of the Hudson River.
The Hudson, originally known as the North River, is 315 miles long, beginning its journey as a stream in the Adironadack Mountains of upstate New York and flows into New York bay. It is technically a tidal river and a fjord and has a mix of salt and fresh water, as the water flows in both directions. The Hudson River Valley is a world-class destination, and inspired the only true school of American landscape painting, the Hudson River School
When the Erie Canal opened in the 1825 the Hudson River was connected to the great lakes region of America's heartland, with the waterways of New york City and the Atlantic Ocean. The 350-mile long canal cut traansportation costs by as much as 95% and paved the way for NYC to become a stronger industrial and financial power.
The Early Years
In the early 1600s, the Dutch founded New York City, settling on the southern tip of Manhattan. For the next 175 years, water came from wells, ponds and springs within the City. The first main source was the Kalch-Hook, or Collect Pond, a 48-acre springfed pond near Franklin and Pearl Streets in lower Manhattan, from which people collected water and brought it to their homes. There were also a few private wells.
In 1667, shortly after the British seized New York from the Dutch, the first public well was dug in front of the old fort at Bowling Green, located near Battery Park. The well used a pump — the first in the City’s history — to bring the water from underground.
As population increased, the existing wells and ponds soon were unable to provide enough water. With no system for disposing of sewage and garbage, human waste and trash polluted waterways and the stone-lined wells dug to tap groundwater became contaminated by salt water from the Hudson and East Rivers.
To make up for the lack of safe clean drinking water in Manhattan, water was hauled from Brooklyn in the early 1700s. Brooklyn had an excellent supply of fresh groundwater, but it was not enough to meet New York City’s needs.
A Water Crisis
The inadequate quantity and poor quality of the water supply created catastrophic problems. Fires burned out of control, including one in 1776 that destroyed a quarter of the City’s buildings. Disease also ravaged the population. In 1832, contaminated water contributed to a cholera epidemic that killed 3,500 people.
In 1799, the State Legislature gave the newly formed Manhattan Company the exclusive right to supply water to New York City. The company, headed by Aaron Burr, ignored plans to bring water from outside of Manhattan, and sunk more wells at the Collect Pond. The water was stored in a new reservoir at Chambers Street and was distributed through wooden pipes. The Manhattan Company used its surplus funds to start a bank, known today as Chase Manhattan. The Company, which was more interested in running a bank than a water supply system, did a poor job of delivering water to the City.
Building a New Water Supply System
By the late 1820s, City leaders realized they had to develop a cleaner and more abundant source of water. After exploring alternatives, the City decided to take water from the Croton River, in what is now Westchester County. The development of the City’s first successful public water supply system was a major engineering undertaking. The system was constructed by almost 4,000 immigrants, who began work in 1837. It included the Old Croton Dam, which was built six miles above the junction of the Croton and Hudson Rivers. The dam created a lake five miles long that covered about 400 acres and was able to hold 660 million gallons of water. Another major component was the Old Croton Aqueduct, built to carry water 41 miles from the Croton River to a reservoir at what is now the Great Lawn in Central Park. From there the water traveled to the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir, today the site of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
Croton water flowed through the aqueduct, largely by gravity, and arrived in the City on July 4, 1842. New Yorkers celebrated with spectacular fountain displays and a parade. The Croton system provided water to a population that continued to grow. By the 1880s, the City decided to enlarge the Croton system with a new dam and aqueduct and a larger watershed. The Old Croton Dam was submerged in the reservoir created by the New Croton Dam. In 1885, construction began on the New Croton Aqueduct, an underground tunnel almost three times the size of the old aqueduct ( source: www1.nyc.gov).
Pictured below, is the oldest bridge in New York City, completed in 1848. Known as the High Bridge, it connects the borough of The Bronx with Manhattan in the Washington Heights neighborhood. As a part of the Old Croton Aqueduct, it was instrumental in facilitating the flow of water from Westchester County to Manhattan. Since it is no longer in operation for our water supply, it has been turned into a pedestrian walkway.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, was once a part of the Croton Aqyeduct system. Today is a populat jogging path and does provide water to other Central Park waterways.
The Great Lawn was a distributing reservoir until it was drained in 1931. Read more about Central Park's Great Lawn
The current site of the main branch of the NY Public Library on 5th Avenue within Bryant Park was also a reservoir. It was torn down in 1900 and then construction of the library began. Read more about Bryant Park's History
Pictured above are three locations in Central Park that we visit during the tour: On the left is the remains of a natural spring that served Seneca Village , which was largely an African American community of over 200 persons which existed from the 1820's through the 1850's. Seneca Village pre-dated the creation of Central Park. When The City acquired the land to create the park through eminent domain, the law that allows the government to take private land for public use with compensation paid to the landowner. This was a common practice in the 19th century, and had been used to build Manhattan’s grid of streets decades earlier. In addition to the people of Seneca Village, there were at least an additional 1,300 inhabitants displaced throughout the area. Although landowners were compensated, many argued that their land was undervalued. Ultimately, all residents had to leave by the end of 1857 (Central Park Conservancy).
In the middle is the Egyption Obelisk, affectionate know as Cleopatra's Needle, which is over 3,000 years old. Located behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is likely the oldest outdoor human made structure in New York City. On the right is Belvedere Castle, which is south of the Great Lawn. It was created in the 1860's and served as both a fun feature and as an observatory overlooking the reservior. It served as a weather station during the first half of the 20th century, and in more recent times has served as a visitor center. The castle is presently under restoration.
By the time we end the tour overlooking the East River in Carl Schurz Park, we have traveled over five miles. While also covering the history of the development of Manhattan's Upper West and Upper East Side, we also stopped at both iconic and lesser known buildings.
This statue of Eleanor Roosevelt lies within Riverside Park at 72nd Street. The sculpture was unveiled in 1996 and the artist is Penelope Jencks. This lovely row of townhouses were built in the 1880's and can be found on the West side of West End Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets. The Ansonia apartments, designed in Beaux Arts style, opened in 1904 on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Streets. It has perhaps the most colorful history of any apartment dwelling in the city.
Verdi Square, honoring the Italian composer of operas, is a NYC Scenic Landmark. located between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues at 73rd Street. The classical structure is the Sheareth Israel Synagogue, built in 1898, is the descendent of the first and oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, established in Lower Manhattan in 1654, during the time of Dutch colonial rule. The history of the congregation is quite fascinating. The first Jewish immigrants were from Spain and Portugal. The Beresford apartments at 81st Street and Central Park West was built in the late 1920's courtesy of architect Emery Roth. Among the distinctive features of this Renaissance-inspired building are it three towers. Among the celebreties who have called the Beresford home include Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Ross, Margaret Mead, John McEnroe, Glenn Close and Beverly Sills. Across the street in Central Park is the Diana Ross playground, renovated with funds donated by Ms. Ross.
Museum Mile on 5th Avenue includes an impressive array of structures that were originally built as private homes for the wealthy elite of New York. The Jewish Museum was orginally built for Felix Warburg, an affluent banker. His widow Frieda donated her home for museum in 1943. This Francois I style mansion was designed by C.P.H. Gilbert. The quaint wooden frame houses were built in the mid 1800's and are among the last frame houses on Manhattan, in part due to fire prevention construction having shifted to brick and stone. These homes are located on East 92nd Street between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue, around the corner from the 92nd Street Y. Gracie Mansion, was originally built in 1799 for Scottish shipping magnate Archibald Gracie. Since the 1940's it has been the designated home for our NYC mayors. The house and location has quite a colorful history.
Finally we reach the East River and the end of our tour and historic exploration. In the background are the Triboro (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) and the Hellgate Bridge.