The History of the Old Croton Aqueduct

The last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in the Old Croton Aqueduct (NYC’s first reliable source of clean water). My first interaction with the aqueduct was an Urban Park Rangers tour of The High Bridge (we went on their first first tour of it). If you haven’t been to The High Bridge, it’s incredible. Then I started exploring the entire OCA – most of it is now a trail and most of the trail is really wonderful. In the process of figuring out the path of the OCA I discovered The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct which is an organization that supports, cares, and advocates for everything related to the OCA. I’ve since gone on their walking tour of the Upper Manhattan portion of the OCA and in the near future I plan to go through the OCA Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and do a tour of the weir in Ossining – both of which are organized by the Friends of the OCA.

The goal of this post is simply to give a big-picture timeline of the history of the OCA – placing those events into a larger historical context. I’ll follow up with posts detailing physical aspects of the lower sections of the aqueduct.

1774

The City decides that the wells it uses for water aren’t sufficient and they want to come up with a more reliable and safer source of water. A plan is devised, but of course two years later war breaks out during which 1/3rd of the city’s population flee the City, so the plans for a better water system wait for another day.

1795

The City experiences the first of three waves of Yellow Fever. All combined they killed thousands of New Yorkers.

1799

The second of the three waves of Yellow Fever hit New York and people start talking seriously again about improving NY’s water supply.

Aaron Burr personally pushes a law through Albany to improve the city’s water supply. Thing is, he didn’t seem to be motivated by clean water – he was motivated by his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton (who he later killed in the infamous duel when Burr was Vice President). Hamilton had founded a bank (The Bank of New York), and Burr wanted a bank too. So the bill that Burr pushed through Albany specified that a private company, The Manhattan Company, would be in charge of the project and there was a provision that the profits could be used for things other than water. Burr used that provision to turn The Manhattan Company into a bank. That bank is now known as Chase Bank. Instead of the intended capitalization of one million dollars with 1/3rd of the company being owned by the City, he capitalized it with two million dollars and City didn’t get anywhere near 1/3rd ownership.

Everyone was under the impression that the Manhattan company was going to dam the Bronx River at West Farms (in the Bronx) at which point water would flow into a canal down to the East River where it would be piped into Manhattan. Compared to what came later with the OCA that was a comparatively small task. But no – The Manhattan Company just dug a few more wells in Manhattan and basically called it a day. New York was left with a continuing water problem, but hey – you got that Chase credit card in your wallet, so it wasn’t a total loss.

[Learn more about the history of the Manhattan Company here.]

1803

The third of the three waves of Yellow Fever hit New York.

1811

The Manhattan street grid is approved up to 155th Street.

1819-1821

There’s a stock market crash followed by a depression.

1823-1824

People still aren’t happy with the water supply and a few proposals are put forward, but nothing really happens (source).

1825

A white landowner sells 200 plots of land in what was then the rural countryside – 82nd to 89th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The buyers are free black men and the area becomes known as Seneca Village.

The Erie Canal opens which greatly increased New York’s importance as a trading center.

1827

July 4th – Slavery in New York ends.

1828

A huge fire results in calls for a reservoir just to fight fire. The reservoir was then built at Broadway & 13th Street (source).

1832

A cholera epidemic kills 3,500 New Yorkers. Half the population of the City fled the City to avoid illness.

DeWitt Clinton proposes daming the Croton River and using that as a source of water for the City.

1834

New York State approves a bill to do something about the City’s water supply but doesn’t specify the precise solution.

1835

The City chooses the Croton option and decides to build what we now know as the OCA. They choose David B Douglas to plan and oversee the project.

There are a series of three fires that year culminating in The Great Fire Of New York in December when 17 blocks and hundreds of buildings (1/4 of the City) is destroyed. It was so severe because firemen couldn’t get water from the river because it was frozen over.

Needless to say, with 1/4 of the City in ruins all eyes turn to the aqueduct project but Douglas doesn’t have much of anything to show for his work up to that point. He’s asked to resign, refuses, then fired, and John B Jervis is put in his place.

1830s

Meanwhile the City is starting to grow outwards. The New York & Harlem Railroad is founded in 1831 and reaches up to East 85th Street by 1834 and up to East Harlem by 1837.

1837-1843

There’s another stock market crash followed by a depression, but work on the OCA starts in 1837 and continues through the depression.

1842

The OCA goes into service despite parts of it not being completed…

  • June 22nd – Water started flowing in the aqueduct.
  • June 27th – Water started flowing into the receiving reservoir in what is now Central Park.
  • July 4th – There are celebrations as water flows into the distributing reservoir on 42nd Street.

It should be noted that the original route of the OCA went right through Seneca Village just before it reached the receiving reservoir.

1844

The aqueduct is complete except for one important piece – The High Bridge over the Harlem River.

1845-1849

The Great Famine strikes Ireland and New York sees an influx of immigrants – some of whom move into Seneca Village, despite it being a black community.

1848

The High Bridge over the Harlem River is finally complete which meant the entire OCA was now “finished”.

1853

New York State approves building Central Park. One of the reasons that location was chosen for the park rather than others was because the reservoir for the aqueduct was there.

1855

The residents of Seneca Village are forced from their homes under eminent domain. Earlier that year it is established there were about 50 homes in the area and over two hundred residents – 2/3rds of the residents are black, 1/3rd are Irish, with a few Germans in the mix. While there are a few “shanties” most of the homes are of a fairly high quality. Some are multi-story.

1857

The original six Keeper’s houses (which were wooden) were torn down and replaced with masonry houses (source). The locations were:

  • The Croton Dam
  • The Sing Sing (Ossining) Weir
  • The Mill River Weir
  • Dobbs Ferry
  • Yonkers
  • Tibbett’s Brook

Most keepers made $1.25/day (the keeper at the dam made $600/year).

1857-1860

Yet another stock market crash followed by a depression.

1858

Frederick Law Olmstead is chosen as the designer for Central Park. And work begins to implement his plan.

1861-1865

Civil War breaks out, but work on Central Park continues.

1862

What we now know as the Jackie Onassis Reservoir is completed. It becomes part of the Croton Aqueduct system and the path of the OCA changes to incorporate the new, Upper (Onassis) Reservoir (aka “Lake Manahatta”).

The original route of the aqueduct arced from 90th Street just west of 9th (Columbus) Avenue over to 85th Street and 8th Avenue (CPW). When the new reservoir was completed a junction gatehouse was put in at 92nd Street that could divert water into either the Upper or Lower Reservoir. Pipes were laid under 90th Street – some went straight into the Upper Reservoir, others turned, went down 8th Avenue (CPW) and then turned again at 85th Street to connect with the Lower Reservoir.

The new Upper Reservoir can hold over 5 times the water of the older Lower Reservoir (1 billion gallons vs 180 million gallons).

A 90″ pipe was added on top of the two 36″ pipes going over the High Bridge (source, illustration).

1868-1870

The Westside and Yonkers Patent Railway was built going up 9th (Columbus) Avenue. It was an odd railroad that was basically an elevated, single track affair pulled along by a cable system (similar, but different to San Francisco cable cars). By 1871 it had gone bankrupt and the new owners replaced it with steam engines on an elevated track.

1870

A reservoir was added to the OCA system at the top of the hill immediately west of the High Bridge. Pumps were required to get the water from the aqueduct up to the reservoir.

1872

A water tower was added between the High Bridge and the reservoir in order to pressurize the water supply in Upper Manhattan.

1870s

By the 1870s NY was growing rapidly and becoming a major hub of commerce. People started to realize that the City was growing fast enough that it wouldn’t be long before the OCA wouldn’t be able to supply enough water for the City.

1873

There was another stock market crash with a depression lasting until 1877, so it wasn’t really the time to spend money, but projects that were already in progress continued.

1870 to 1876

In 1870 the legislature passed a law to change the route of the OCA in Manhattan yet again – this time between 92nd Street and 113th Street. The original route involved a stone bridge (The Clendenning Bridge) about a hundred feet west of 9th (Columbus) Avenue stretching from just north of 95th Street to just south of 102nd Street. While there were underpasses at 98th, 99th & 100th Streets, the bridge blocked 96th, 97th and 101st Streets. Given that 96th Street was a major arterial the bridge was a problem. Then the aqueduct angled over to 10th (Amsterdam) Avenue between 104th and 107th Streets.

As a result the Clendenning Bridge and the section of masonry aqueduct between 107th and 113th Street were demolished and replaced by an “inverted siphon” made up of four 48″ pipes running under 10th (Amsterdam) Avenue and 93rd Street. Gatehouses were built at each end of the siphon – one at 93rd street just west of 9th (Columbus) Avenue next to the existing junction gatehouse at 92nd Street, and another at 10th Avenue and 113th Street. Construction of the siphon was completed in 1875. Construction of the gatehouses was completed the next year – 1876.

While the 92/93rd Street gatehouses have been demolished, the gate house at 113th still exists today. [You can see the route of the OCA and the location of the gatehouses on this old map of NY from circa 1940.]

1876 to 1885

The Church of St Paul the Apostle was built at 60th & 9th (Columbus) using stone from the OCA. Stone from the Clendenning Bridge was in the lower part of the church between 1876 and 1885 when the church was dedicated. And stone from the Distributing Reservoir was used in the church’s towers many years later (probably around 1898 to 1900).

Other parts of the aqueduct between 92nd and 107th Streets were demolished sometime before 1896 (e.g. demolition at 104th Street).

1880-1881

A severe drought hits New York and people once again start talking about building another aqueduct (source).

Early 1880s

The weirs were modified (e.g. with new steel gates). The weir in Ossining was completely replaced with a new weir south of the original weir (1882).

1882

A new, higher dam is proposed to make the Croton Reservoir larger.

1883

New York State approves building another aqueduct – the New Croton Reservoir.

1885

Construction on the New Croton Aqueduct begins.

1890

July 15th – the New Croton Aqueduct goes into service.

The original Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street was taken out of service.

1893-1897

The Stock Market Panic of 1893 starts one of the most severe depressions in US history that lasts until 1897. [All of these crashes and depressions are why the Federal Reserve exists.]

1895

The gatehouse at 119th Street was demolished and replaced by another one which is still standing today. [The original 1840 gatehouses that were built along 10th (Amsterdam) Avenue were built literally in the middle of the street and impeded the flow of traffic, which is why they had to tear it down and build another one off to one side.]

The Harlem Ship Canal was completed, changing the course of the Harlem River between Inwood and the Bronx. Marble Hill, which was part of Manhattan is made an island. [In 1914 the old riverbed is filled in and Marble Hill becomes connected to the Bronx, but remains to this day part of the Borough of Manhattan.]

1898

Further changes are made to the Harlem River in the vicinity of The High Bridge as The Harlem Speedway is completed along the Manhattan side of the river. The Speedway becomes a popular place to race carriages, and people flock to the area to watch the many rowing clubs along the river compete.

Demolition of the Receiving Reservoir at 42nd Street begins and is completed two years later. Parts of the old reservoir can still be seen in the basement of the New York Public Library which now stands in the same location.

The five boroughs are combined and become New York City.

1906

The New Croton Dam was completed – the largest masonry dam ever constructed.

The Jerome Park Reservoir was completed. It was originally designed in 1875 and construction started in 1895 (source).

1907

Construction begins on the Catskill Water System.

1916

The Catskill aqueduct is completed. (92 miles, 60% cut-and-cover, 15% gravity tunnel, 18% pressure tunnel, 10% siphon). It brings water from the Eastern Catskills, crosses the river near Storm King Mountain and then goes on to the Kensico Reservoir in Valhalla and then South to the City. The portion in the City is also known as “Tunnel 1”. It currently supplies about 40% of NYC’s water.

1917

The original Lower Reservoir in Central Park is deemed obsolete.

1924-1927

The Catskill Water System is completed. (Sources differ on the date of completion).

1927

The arches of the High Bridge are declared a hazard to ship navigation in the early 1920s and in 1927 five of them are torn out and replaced with a single steel arch.

1929

The Great Depression starts.

1931

The original Lower Reservoir in Central Park is drained, but at that point in The Great Depression there isn’t money to do anything with it and it becomes a homeless encampment (aka Hooverville).

1934

The High Bridge Reservoir is decommissioned and turned into a swimming pool.

1937

The original Lower Reservoir in Central Park is finally demolished and turned into The Great Lawn and Turtle Pond.

1945

The Delaware Aqueduct is completed, but the system of reservoirs takes another 20 years to be finalized. It is a deep-rock, pressurized tunnel that ranks as the world’s longest tunnel. Like the Catskill Aqueduct, it brings water from the Catskills (the Western Catskills in this case) to the Kensico Dam in Valhalla, but it takes a different route to get there. It crosses the Hudson River at Newburgh, then goes through a large part of the Croton watershed to finally get to the Kensico Reservoir. The Catskill and Delaware waters mix in the Kensico Reservoir, then then there are separate Catskill and Delaware aqueducts running between Kensico Reservoir and the Hillview Reservoir on the Bronx/Yonkers border where multiple mains connect to the City’s water system.

1949

The High Bridge pumping station is decommissioned, which means the water tower was no longer used to pressurize the water mains in the area.

[Question: What exactly was going on between 1949 and 1955? Wikipedia says the High Bridge stopped being used to deliver water in 1949, but most sources say the OCA continued to be used until 1955. Was the OCA only in use to the Bronx or is Wikipedia wrong and only the water tower was decommissioned in 1949?]

1955

New York City stopped using the Old Croton Aqueduct as a water source, but parts of it were still used to distribute water within Manhattan and the upper portion continued to supply water to Ossining. [The New Croton Aqueduct is still used today and supplies 10-30% of New York’s water.]

[Question: Why did NYC stop using the OCA? Why didn’t they see the value in having a redundant supply for Croton water? Did Robert Moses just think it was old and in the way?]

1961-1963

The Cross Bronx Expressway was built in the vicinity of the OCA which would have involved demolition of the OCA in that area.

1965

Ossining stops using the OCA as a water source.

The Delaware River reservoir system is completed. It currently supplies about half of NYC’s water, but it leaks so badly the water it leaks could supply water for a half million people.

1968

New York State purchases 26.2 miles of the OCA and turns it into a park.

1970 (possibly sooner)

The High Bridge is closed and doesn’t reopen until 2015.

1976

Police find the carcasses of “carefully mutilated German Shepards” in the aqueduct in the vicinity of Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers. Apparently satanic rituals were happening in the park which the Son of Sam may have participated in.

1987

The northernmost three miles of the OCA are put back in service to supply water to the town of Ossining.

1990

The 119th Street gatehouse ceases operation.

1993

The Upper (Onassis) Reservoir is decommissioned, though it is still connected to the water supply. (Water in the reservoir is chlorinated tap water.)

Our House Is On The Mount Morris Park House Tour This Sunday

Our StaircaseI know this is a bit late to be posting this, but if you’ve been reading this blog and want to see our end result, our house will be on the Mount Morris Park Annual House Tour this Sunday, June 9, from 11am to 4pm.

That’s our place in the picture to the left. It’s in rather stark contrast to what you expect in a Harlem brownstone (see pictures below) – but we had no original detail to work with.

Apparently something like 600 people will be traipsing through our house. But it’s all for a good cause. MMPCIA does some really great work. We bought those little surgical shoe covers for people to put on so they don’t track too much dirt through the house.

MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) produced a rather good video about the house tour. It’s narrated by Syderia Asberry-Chresfield who lives on our block and has gotten to be a good friend.

Harlem brownstone stoop

Our entire house will be open – including the rental unit. (Our tenant was gracious enough to say yes to the house tour). That presented a bit of a staffing challenge for MMPCIA since they provide volunteers to monitor the people going through the house – but it all worked out.

We were hoping to get the garden to a point of completion. We’ve made progress, but it’s not quite there yet. We’re using old joists as “decking” that’ll be laid directly on the ground with pea gravel between them and under them. We’ve applied rot inhibitor to them but over time they’ll disintegrate. At some point we’ll do something better, but the joists will do the job for now and they fit our budget since they’re pretty much free.

Other than the garden, things are pretty much complete. We’re not fully decorated yet – we just have “placeholder” furniture in the living room, our master bedroom bed is just a futon on the floor, and we’re going to need furniture for the roof deck and garden – but we’re getting there. Harlem brownstone stairs on house tourWe’re a bit “house poor” at the moment – but grateful we got through the project and can afford to live here now that it’s done – even if we can’t afford all the new furniture we want 😉

More details about the house tour are available on the MMPCIA website. You can can also purchase advance tickets at a discounted price on their site.

So please join us on Sunday. And when you come through the house, feel free to say ‘hi’..

Do You Know Anyone Who Finished Renos In 2012?

Yesterday was the day that the Department of Finance released the tentative property tax valuations for the coming year. Our valuation went from $333K to $1.91M. That means our property taxes are going from about $3,500/year to something around $21,000/year! [Why does the City seem to want to punish people for improving their communities? I mean dealing with DOB is a nightmare, and now this…]

The way it’s supposed to work is that the amount of improvements to the property is added to market valuation of the property. Normally DOF is limited in how much they can jump your property taxes, but when you do substantial improvements that is the one time they’re allowed to bump the taxes up substantially – but only by the amount of improvements to the property.

If I understand things correctly they threw out the PW3 Cost Affidavit that we submitted to the Department of Buildings and instead used the number $1.46M which their appraiser appears to pulled out of thin air since it’s nothing close to the actual cost. Mind you, “cost” is one of those things that’s a bit flexible and open to interpretation since what you report to DOB is “hard costs” which don’t include everything you spend money on. But it’s not like we’re arguing over small amounts that might be due to the interpretation of “hard costs”. There is just no reality in which we could have spent $1.46M – we simply didn’t have access to that kind of money.

The reason why I’m asking in the title of this post whether people know of other people who completed their jobs in 2012 (and possibly even late 2011) is because I suspect there’s a problem assessor covering Central Harlem. 104 West 120th had an assessment last year of $262K. Their PW3 cost affidavit was for $315K and the assessor gave them a market valuation of $1.5M – so she’s in the same boat we are – it’s just the change isn’t quite as drastic as ours.

If a bunch of us can all band together and go to DOF together, then I think our individual cases will be strengthened and it will seem like the problem is with the assessor. If you know of anyone who might be in the same situation, please have them contact me – jay@beatingupwind.com. I’ll be happy to look up their particulars if they don’t know how to find them. And if you just know the address for buildings that had completed projects last year, please put them in the comments below and I’ll look them up and contact the owners if appropriate.

Update (Jan 21st):

In researching the situation – looking for other places that completed their work in 2012 – I discovered that it’s also affecting some of the folks who haven’t gotten their jobs signed off yet..

There’s a place on 136 that filed a preliminary cost estimate of $50,000, but they’ve had about $650K added to their market value by DOF before the renovations are actually completed. Their taxes will just about triple because of that – not as bad as our case, but they’re probably going to have more added next year when they complete their renovations.

But that’s nothing compared to what’s happening to 241 Lenox (which has also not completed their renovations yet)… They filed cost estimates totaling about $850K. The assessor has raised the market value on that place by $650K which doesn’t seem like a horrible thing on the face of it, but the problem is the tax class was not changed. So their tax bill is going from about $13K/year to a whopping $56K/year. I think they’re doing 2 family plus commercial. I don’t know if that qualifies for tax class 1. If it does, then keeping them at tax class 2 is just spiteful. It’s adding $40K to the cost of their renovations.

Hot Air Doesn’t Always Rise

When we were designing the house I wanted a recirculating duct from the living room on the parlor floor to the bulkhead 4 flights up. I figured in the winter we could pull the hot air from the top of the stairs down to the parlor, and in the summer we could push cool air up where it was hot.

Problem was, the architect wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea, and his mechanical engineer told me air in buildings didn’t work that way – that the hot air wouldn’t rise. That contradicted everything I had been taught in grade school. He said hot air only rises when there’s moving air. The air in a well-sealed house with the windows shut doesn’t move.

I didn’t believe him and when we got to the end of the project the recirculating duct was one of a short list of things I felt like I would have done differently if I could do it all over again.

Well, who’d have guessed – but the mechanical engineer was right. It’s winter and the top floor is at least 5 degrees cooler than the lower floors. It’s not because of poor insulation – we’ve got an R62 roof and R22 walls and great windows. At first I thought it might be just be that the room where I was when it struck me had had the door closed. But then I moved into the stairwell and it was the same there.

In the summer the area up in the bulkhead would get incredibly hot, but apparently that was because of solar heat gain from the large bulkhead windows (and glass door). But in the winter there’s less solar heat gain even – though the bulkhead is designed to capture winter light and discourage solar heat gain in the summer.

Now I’m perfectly happy the recirculating duct wasn’t put it. The air is cold up in the bulkhead – there’s no point of pulling cold air down into the living space in the winter. And likewise with the summer – we don’t need the bulkhead air conditioned.

The moral of the story is engineers know what they’re talking about. Who’ve guessed? lol

Electric Bills For Townhouse vs. Apartment

This is a blog post I’ll update as time goes on… But I’ve been wondering how much our utility costs would go up once we moved into a house. Here are the baseline numbers for electrical usage in our old coop. It was 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, and about 1,350 sq. ft. in a 1939 pre-war (poorly-insulated) building with leaky window A/C units and a Sub Zero fridge:

Summer Average (’07-’09): 29.0 kWh/day
Winter Average (’07-’09): 18.3 kWh/day

Summer I defined as the June 20ish reading through the August 20ish reading. Winter I defined as the September 20ish reading through the May 20ish reading. Actually, winter is a bad term – “non-summer” would be better. So what you see above is the  average of three summers (6 total months), and 2 winters (16 total months)

I should also mention that we work from home – so everything you see includes air conditioning during the day – but typically just for the rooms we were occupying, though Dan has a bad habit in the house of opening doors into unairconditioned spaces and cooling more of the house than is necessary. We also have at least one computer on 24 hours a day – since it acts as a server.

From 5/21 to 6/12 we used an average of 36.3 kWh/day (98% over winter average)
From 6/12 to 7/31 we used an average of 37.2 kWh/day (28% over summer average)
From 7/31 to 8/20 we used an average of 54.1 kWh/day (87% over summer average)
From 8/20 to 9/20 we used an average of 41.0 kWh/day
From 9/20 to 10/23 we used an average of 31.4 kWh/day (72% over winter average)

Now, mind you, the house is a lot bigger has more things going on. Instead of 1,350 sq. ft., it’s about 3,200 sq. ft. There’s 180 watts of light bulbs that are on from dusk to dawn (roughly 2 kWh/day). There’s a dehumidifier running the cellar 24/7 – it’s Energy Star certified, but it still uses a fair amount of power. The server we have running is more power hungry. There’s also a booster pump for water pressure, etc. All in all there’s just more electrical demand than there was in the apartment.

The average from 6/12 to 8/20 was 42.1 kWh/day. Since the period started a little earlier than it should have and there were some days we wished we had A/C before July 3 (when it actually got up and running), let’s call the summer average 45 kWh/day – that would be “just” 55% more than at the coop. I’m pretty happy with that, all things considered.

The average up to 6/12 and after 9/20 is 33.4 kWh/day. So once again we see power going up roughly 11 kWh/day for A/C during the summer. That’s great since we’re cooling more space than we did at the apartment with about the same amount of energy. In fact for about 6 weeks during that time Dan had the A/C on 24/7 up in the studio because he was making stuff out of fiberglass and needed to control the temperature. But our building is more efficient and the A/Cs are more efficient.

But the “winter” (non-summer) power is considerably higher. So far, the townhouse seems to consistently use 15 kWh/day more than our old apartment – that’s 80% more power. Electricity seems to be costing about 25 cents per kWh, so that’s less then $4/day, or about $115/month additional. But when you look at the list of stuff (above) that we didn’t have in the old apartment, it sorta makes sense that it costs more to run a townhouse that’s over twice the size of the apartment.

We also have data for our tenant. That’s a roughly 1,050 sq. ft. duplex apartment (basement & half of the cellar):

From 7/31 to 8/20 he used an average of 24.5 kWh/day (15% under summer average)
From 8/20 to 9/20 he used an average of 35.2 kWh/day
From 9/20 to 10/23 he used an average of 20.9 kWh/day (14% over winter average)

Our tenant also works from home. Theoretically his energy usage should be less than our old apartment – the square footage is less, the insulation is better and the A/C is more efficient. Plus, a third of the space is the cellar which almost never needs cooling. But he does have a dehumidifier running 24/7… His usage was 15% below our usage from late July to late August, but then the following month his electricity usage went up considerably for some reason. And then he was 14% over our winter usage in the past month.