New York City was wrecked by fire in 1776, and a yellow fever epidemic in 1789 claimed over 2,000 lives. It was clear that for the new metropolis to thrive, it would need more clean water to combat both the spread of flames and disease. Collect Pond, long a source of water in Manhattan, was being polluted by nearby slaughterhouses and tanneries. Although the harbor and East and Hudson rivers flowed around the city, their water was too salty or brackish to drink.
City planners looked north to the upstate watersheds and envisioned a gravity-powered system that would bring that resource into the city. Its engineering, art, and impact are currently explored in To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175 at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). The exhibition at the Manhattan museum features artifacts, manuscripts, prints, and art, including work by Nathaniel Currier, Samuel Halpert, and Hayley Lever.
“When New Yorkers decided to build the aqueduct in 1835, it must have seemed like an almost impossible task to bring water from 41 miles away,” curator Susan Johnson told Hyperallergic. “The area had to be surveyed, a structure had to be engineered, land had to be purchased, and then it had to be built, brick by brick, by hand. In a way it’s astonishing that such a huge piece of infrastructure was built in a relatively short time between 1837 and 1842.”
The small exhibition is divided into four sections: “The Want of Fresh Water,” “Building the Aqueduct,” “Abundant Water!,” and “Croton Aqueduct in Art.” It also makes clever use of its hallway space, with a photograph of an 1866 manhole cover in Soho — believed to be the oldest example in the city — installed by the drinking foundations. A map of the system is on the floor, and a large-scale photograph by Nathan Kensinger of the Croton Aqueduct today covers one wall. This summer, the photographer walked some of the surviving paths of the system, and his contemporary images are contrasted with 19th-century drawings by artist and engineer Fayette B. Tower. Kensinger, who often explores the overlooked edges of New York City in his Camera Obscura column on Curbed, highlights how the Croton structures, mostly constructed by Irish immigrants, have slowly been consumed by nature.
“What I like about [Kensinger’s] work for this project is the way the aqueduct seems to rise mysteriously out of the forest, or to be tucked around the corner of a building,” Johnson said. “The aqueduct is almost hidden in plain sight, and I hope that through his photographs we inspire people to go out and explore the aqueduct for themselves.”
Some of the aqueduct has been demolished, like the Egyptian-style Distributing Reservoir once located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (pieces of it are in the foundation of the New York Public Library). The Roman-inspired 1848 High Bridge was reopened to pedestrians in 2015, again linking Manhattan and the Bronx, and miles of trail are still accessible in the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park. Although city planners anticipated that the Croton Aqueduct would sustain the city for generations, it was soon outpaced by New York’s population. Today’s system involves an almost 2,000 square mile watershed, in which the Croton Aqueduct supplies 9% of the city’s water.
“The infrastructure is so much larger and more complicated than it was then, and yet somehow it has become less visible to everyday New Yorkers,” Johnson said. “I hope that by focusing on what an impressive feat it was to build the aqueduct in the first place the exhibition helps people to realize that water is not something to be taken for granted, it is something we are very fortunate to have access to.”
The completion of the Croton Aqueduct was celebrated with a parade, the biggest the city had seen, on October 14, 1842. Author Lydia Maria Child captured the jubilant reception of the new public fountains flowing with fresh water: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!”
To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175 continues through December 31 at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan).
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