Monday, June 29, 2009

Days of Hope and Glory: When Croton Water Came to the City


On October 14, 1842, 167 years ago, New York City marked the completion of the Croton Aqueduct and the stream of cold, clear water it brought from the valley of the Croton River. The water's arrival touched off celebrations whose like had never been seen before. At a time when the purity of Croton's own water supply is in jeopardy from runoff contamination, it is appropriate that we remind ourselves of the benefits Croton's pure, sweet water brought to the way of life in Gotham.

Throughout the summer of 1842, Manhattan's citizens were brimming with anticipation as they eagerly awaited the long-heralded coming of Croton water. Over the years many proposals had been explored in the city's search for "a sufficient quantity of pure and wholesome water," including tapping the Bronx River, the Passaic River in New Jersey, or the Housatonic in Connecticut.

To replace an earthen dam that had been breached and destroyed in a storm, a dam had been erected in Westchester County to impound the Croton River. Some 270 feet across and 50 feet high, the Croton Dam, the first large masonry dam in this country, created a lake five miles long. To carry this water to the city, a now still-usable masonry aqueduct eight and a half feet high and seven and a half feet in width, snaked its way through a dozen towns and villages and across hundreds of acres of private land, tunneling through hills and spanning broad valleys with earthen embankments or classical arches.

Bridges carried it across deep ravines, streams or highways. Some, like the aqueduct bridge at Sing Sing with its span of 88 feet and height of 76 feet, were structures of striking architectural boldness. The entire system was one of the nineteenth century's engineering marvels. Proposed in 1833 and estimated at $5 million, its final cost was almost twice that amount.

Farther to the south, a 24-million-gallon reservoir was erected at the highest point of this part of Manhattan, now the site of the New York Public Library. Like a gigantic above-ground swimming pool, the magnificent Egyptian-style masonry structure stretched across two city blocks from 40th to 42nd Street. Its sloping walls rose 38 feet above street level. It would soon become a major attraction for residents and visitors. A railed flagstone promenade atop its massive walls made it possible for strollers to gaze into the serene depths of sparkling clear Croton water or to survey the vast panorama of the city lying to the south.

On June 8th, Chief Engineer John B. Jervis, several of his assistants and the five water commissioners began a final inspection by trudging for three days through thirty-three miles of the Croton Aqueduct from the Croton Dam to the Harlem River. Jervis, a brilliant self-taught engineer, had cut his teeth on canals: first on the Erie Canal--where he rose in eight years from axeman to surveyor to Resident Engineer--and then the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Next he built New York's first railroad, the Mohawk and Hudson, between Albany and Schenectady. The driving force in the construction of the Croton Dam and Croton, Jervis's only remaining monument today is the 41-mile-long aqueduct itself.

The Voyage of the Croton Maid
On June 20, a modest flow of water was started down the aqueduct. Only 18 inches deep, the stream was enough to launch a 16-foot flat-bottomed wooden skiff designed for this use and named the Croton Maid. Carrying four workers, the tiny vessel competed its journey and reached the Harlem River 22 hours later.

As artillery battery fired a 38-gun salute , the first Croton water began to flow into the receiving reservoir in the wild area that would become Central Park. New York Governor William H. Seward (who would later become Lincoln's Secretary of State), Mayor Robert H. Morris and other officials were on hand for the historic event.

After portaging the Croton Maid around the three-foot-diameter cast iron pipes that carried the aqueduct temporaryily under the Harlem River and across Manhattan Valley, on June 21st the four men in the little craft finally sailed out into the giant York Hill receiving reservoir located betewen 79th and 86th streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues to the cheers of some 20,000 enthusiastic spectators, cannon salutes and toasts of the "sweet, soft, clear water." A Water Commission report later added that this voyage "afforded indubitable evidence that a navigable river was flowing into the city for the use of its inhabitants."

George Templeton Strong, a young graduate of Columbia University who was to have a brilliant career as literary critic, music lover and lawyer, noted in his diary, "Croton Water is slowly flowing towards the city, which at last will stand a chance of being cleaned--if water can clean it."

Filling the Reservoirs
Few were present at sunrise on the Fourth of July when valves were opened and water flowed through three-foor iron pipes down Fifth Avenue and began to flow into the Murray Hill distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenu, as 45 cannon boomed. (The New York Public Library now occupies this site.) . Croton's water had arrived not a moment too soon. The huge cast-iron tank erected in 1829 at 13th Street and the Bowery, with a capacity of more than 305,000 gallons, the city's only reservoir and the source of the water on which it depended for fire protection, was bone dry. At Mayor Morris's request, Croton water was immediately piped to the downtown location.

George Templeton Strong told his diary: "There's nothing new in town, except the Croton Water, which is all full of tadpoles and animalculae, and which moreover flows through an aqueduct which I hear was used as a necessary by all the Hibernian vagabonds who worked upon it. I shall drink no Croton Water for some time to come. Jehiel Post has drunk some of it and is in dreadful apprehensions of breeding bullfrogs."

The festivities of June and July marking the arrival of Croton water were mere preludes to the huge celebration planned for Friday, October 14th. "Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water; fountains, aqueducts, hydrants and hose attract our attention," another tireless diarist, ex-Mayor Philip Hone, wrote, "and impede our progress through the streets. Water! Water! is the universal note which is sounded in every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses, even though they are out of spirits."

Charles King, president of Columbia College, hailed the Croton Dam and Aqueduct as "the crowning glory and surpassing achievement of the latter part of the half century," and indeed it was. The city had participated in the statewide celebration of the federal union and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, but it had outdone itself this time. The Croton Dam and Aqueduct were exclusively a municipal venture.

Invitations went out to President John Tyler, in Washington, and to the two living ex-Presidents, John Quincy Adams, then serving as a Congressman from Massachusetts, and Martin Van Buren, then living up the Hudson in Kinderhook, N.Y. All declined because of previous commitments. Writing from the Upper Manor House, 80-year-pld Pierre Van Cortlandt, former member of Congress and President of the Westchester County Bank in Peekskill, gratefully accepted the invitation "to celebrate the introduction of Croton Water."

A Celebration Unlike Any Other
The day began with the firing of one hundred cannon in a national salute at sunrise. Church bells were rung for an hour. At ten, the five-mile-long parade began. The Commercial Advertiser called it "the largest procession ever known in the city." Spectators jammed windows, balconies and sidewalks to watch and applaud. The seven-mile-long parade route took marchers north from the Battery up Broadway to Union Square and then turned south down the Bowery and East Broadway to City Hall Park. Spectacular fountains shooting geysers of Croton water 50 feet into the air had been erected at Union Square and at City Hall Park.

First came a military escort, followed by a dozen open carriages carrying top-hatted dignitaries and elected officials, followed by additional regiments of soldiers. Next came 97 companies of volunteer firemen in full regalia of fire helmets, red shirts and dark trousers. Some pulled highly polished hand pumpers; the smoke-bellowing, steam-driven pump engines were drawn by teams of powerful horses. Four thousand firefighters were in the line of march: three thousand from the city and the balance from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, Connecticut and Long Island.

Butchers on horseback made up another contingent, all in white aprons with their forearms covered with traditional checkered sleeve protectors. These were followed by 30 temperance societies, artisans and mechanics organizations, trade unions, civic societies, college faculties, ladies' auxiliaries, and bands of every description. No segment of society was overlooked.

The Cold Spring Temperance Benevolent Society marched under a banner showing "a gentleman tendering the pledge of total abstinence to a poor ragged inebriate." Its motto was, "Turn; drink of the pure fountain of life, come with us and be free." The presence of so many temperance organizations reflected the hope of reform-minded New Yorkers that public drunkenness would decline with the availability of water that did not have to be made palatable by the addition of alcohol.

About four-thirty the last marchers reached the park at City Hall, where the Mayor introduced the orator of the day, Samuel Stevens, President of the Board of Water Commissioners. "Only the Romans could compete with such a magnificent public work," Commissioner Stevens told the assembled throng. "But the works of Rome were built by slaves," he reminded them, while the Croton Aqueduct "was voted for and constructed by free men." Abolitionists in the audience cheered.

"The Croton Ode"
With the City Hall Park fountain as a backdrop, a choir of two hundred members of the New York Sacred Choral Society sang "The Croton Ode," with lyrics composed by George Pope Morris specifically for the occasion. Morris was a poet, journalist and writer of popular song lyrics. His most famous work was the 1837 sentimental ballad, "Woodman, Spare that Tree." The music for "The Croton Ode" was adapted by Sidney Pearson from Rossini's opera Armida and contained fourteen four-line stanzas; one stanza anticipated the conquest of the twin threats of epidemics and fires:

Water leaps as if delighted,
While her conquered foes retire!
Pale Contagion flies affrighted
With the baffled demon, Fire!

Another stanza pointed the way to temperance:

From her haunts of deep seclusion,
Let Intemp'rance greet her too,
And the heat of his delusion
Sprinkle with this mountain dew

The ceremonies closed with a cold buffet for invited guests in City Hall , with more speechmaking by the mayor and governor. Wines and spirits were conspicuously absent; the only beverages available for the frequent toasts were Croton water and lemonade.

Despite the hoopla and the celebrations that accompanied the arrival of Croton water in New York City in 1842, by 1844 the Croton water system had acquired only 6,000 paying customers and revenues of $100,000, while total cost had risen to $13 million. Croton water was everywhere--in fountains spouting geysers of water and in fire hydrants, but many property owners had not spent the money to intall the expensive pipe connections to the system. Most city residents still preferred to get their water from free street hydrants and the few wells that remained flowing with subsurface water in ancient springs below Manhattan.

With the completion of the High Bridge in 1848 and the resultant increase in water pressure, usage of Croton water began to rise. Begun in the 1850s, construction of an underground sewer system soon made interior bathrooms and water closets a fixture in city dwellings, and launched a new trade--that of the Croton water plumber. In 1857, an enterprising manufacturer named Joseph C. Gayetty produced and marketed the first packaged toilet papers in the United States. For ten cents, a customer got a package of ten sheets of manila hemp paper pre-moistened with an aloe solution. Gayetty's name was imprinted on each sheet.

Arrival of Croton water in Manhattan reputedly added another feature to life in the booming city. The omnipresent German cockroach (Blatella germanica) acquired a new name. City dwellers called it the "Croton bug," convinced that this pest could be introduced into dwellings through the pipes bringing Croton water.

Little did the 1842 celebrants know that by the turn of the century the city would have to build a new and larger Croton Aqueduct to relieve the threat of water shortages, and a new and higher Croton Dam backed by additional upstate reservoirs to increase water capacity. In its unending quest for water, the city would range even farther afield to the Catskills and beyond. For the moment, however, New York was content--and awash in water. It had found in the Croton watershed the "pure and wholesome water" that would make it the envy of other cities.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series about the building of the Old Croton Aqueduct. The complete series of published articles can be found at the following links:

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