The Croton Reservoir

From the Bryant Park website:

In 1686, the area now known as Bryant Park was designated public property by New York Colonial Governor Thomas Dongan. After being routed by the British in the Battle of Long Island, at the start of the Revolutionary War, General Washington’s troops raced across the site. In 1807, the grid system of streets was laid out in what is now considered midtown, expanding north from the already cosmopolitan downtown Manhattan. Fifteen years later, in 1822, the land came under the jurisdiction of New York City, and one year later, was turned into a potter’s field. The city decommissioned the potter’s field in 1840, in preparation for construction of the Croton Reservoir on the adjacent plot of land…

I know, right? So many rabbit trails! Potter’s fields? Routed by the British in Long Island? But let’s not lose the trail right off the bat. I love the Croton Reservoir. More specifically, I love public works projects that are as far seeing and productive as they are expensive. The Croton Aquaduct system was built between 1837 and 1842, which connected the Croton Dam in Westchester to New York City. Wonder why we have such good water in NYC? This is why.

Oh, the Croton Dam looks something like this. Frickin’ Westchester:

The water would flow from the dam, through giant iron pipes that were built into brick masonry, down into New York City (over the High Bridge, New York’s oldest great bridge. I know, right?). From there it would go into a giant reservoir in the middle of Central Park, which at the time was not quite yet Central Park. You know, behind the Metropolitan Museum. What, no? Oh, right. It’s right….there:

This reservoir was replaced by a larger, more, um, scenic reservoir, just north of the original site. That’s right, the Jackie Onassis reservoir (which used to be called the Manhattan Lake) was began in 1858, less than 20 years after the original reservoir was completed. As the American Society of Civil Engineers points out:

Beginning in 1858, a new reservoir was also constructed in Manhattan with a capacity of 1.03 billion gallons (3.9 million cubic meters), covering an area of 96 acres (39 ha). In 1852, the site for the new reservoir was selected between Fifth and Seventh Avenues and 86th and 96th Street. With Central Park created the following year, the reservoir was laid out to follow the natural contours of the land instead of having a rectangular shape. The reservoir was completed on August 19, 1862 and called “Manhattan Lake.” [ed note: I mean, come on, Manhattan Lake? Amiright?]

What you see in this image is (aside from the dirigibles hovering about) the old reservoir being filled in, to make room for a much larger reservoir. That giant pit, of course, would become the Great Lawn. Here’s a clip from the New York Times, 1926:

By 1930, this idea had come to pass, and they began filling in the original reservoir to make room for the lawn.

This reservoir sent water down to the distributing reservoir that is now popularly known as the Croton Reservoir. It sat in, well, Reservoir Square. Which is now Bryant Park. So in the middle of Manhattan, on 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets, was a giant fortress-like structure, with what was apparently by all accounts a delightful, breezy, Egyptian-style promenade.

Let’s stop for a moment, in this historical reverie, and consider some of the costs of these monumental public works, which put New York City on a firm footing for population growth over the next 200 years. The original Croton Aquaduct system cost about $11.5 million, in 1839. Using the calculator from Measuring Worth, they estimate that the equivalent current-value cost for the project is about $100 billion. This is the ‘economy cost’ of the project, basically using the relative share of GDP for the project. This does not even account for the fact that the value of the land that they set aside as part of Central Park was estimated to be $150 million in 1926. They wouldn’t have otherwise put up condos, so this may be an overvaluation, but still the proper response is something like: DAMN!

Just for perspective, the same site’s economy cost estimate of the Empire State building is roughly $7.5 billion: “In 1931, the Empire State building, a giant of a structure in its day, was built at a cost of $41 million. This may seem inexpensive in today’s terms when we compare its cost using the GDP deflator and determine a contemporary cost of $491 million. As a share of the economy, however, an amount of $7.6 billion in 2009 dollars would be the number to use, showing how important this building was in its day.” The city’s water system was 13 times more costly than the Empire State Building.

Here are some images of the distributing reservoir:

I could go on and on (and will, but only just for a bit). Next door was constructed a gorgeous building, the New York Crystal Palace. Described by Samuel Clemens as “a perfect fairy palace–beautiful beyond description.” The Croton Reservoir, he wrote to his sister, “is the greatest wonder yet. Immense sewers are laid across the bed of the Hudson River, and pass through the country to Westchester county, where a whole river is turned from its course, and brought to New York. From the reservoir in the city to the Westchester county reservoir, the distance is thirty-eight miles! and if necessary, they could supply every family in
New York with one hundred barrels of water per day!”

The Croton Reservoir was finally torn down in the last decade of the 19th century, and replaced by the New York Public Library’s main building in 1902. Next door, when the Crystal Palace burned down (in 1858), it was replaced by Bryant Park. Reservoir Square became Bryant Park and the NYPL.

Why do I love the Croton reservoir? Because we can do incredibly impressive things, when we want. When we want. And with foresight and insight, we can make hard decisions that benefit people hundreds of years into the future. When we want. Don’t ever tell me how impossible everything is. It is simply untrue. This city, and this country, and this world, are amazing.

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