Once we had a wall running right through our Bloomingdale neighborhood. Only it wasn’t called a wall; it was the Clendening Bridge, a portion of the Croton Aqueduct, the city’s first major infrastructure project to address the problem of getting clean water to New York City. Thanks to a young engineer named Fayette Bartholomew Tower, we have this drawing of our Clendening Bridge, published in his 1843 book after the Croton Aqueduct was finished. Even though the Bridge remained in place until the 1870s, no photograph has been found (yet).
The Croton Aqueduct, including the Clendening Bridge, ran through our neighborhood about 100 feet west of Columbus Avenue. It came down Amsterdam Avenue and swung over at an angle toward Columbus Avenue, straightening out at 105-104 Streets to head downtown in a straight line. Of course these avenues were Tenth and Ninth then, and not the roadways they are today. Much of the entire Croton Aqueduct was an above-ground “horse-shoe shaped brick tunnel 8.5 feet high by 7.5 feet wide, set on a stone foundation and protected by an earthen cover and stone facing at the embankment walls” according to a description by the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct.
The Aqueduct embankment came through our neighborhood until it had to cross the Clendening Valley, the dip between West 102 and West 95th Streets, requiring a bridge. This was the Clendening Bridge, named for the local property-owner, John Clendening. This earlier blog post covered John Clendening’s estate in Bloomingdale: https://bloomingdalehistory.com/?s=Clendening
The Croton Aqueduct was developed in 1840-41 just as the Clendening estate was being divided and many house lots sold. Mr. Robert Marshall bought the Clendening home. This 1867 map showing the Aqueduct’s route has Mr. Marshal’s name where the homestead was located. Another place name, Manhattan Valley, referred to the deep valley north of our neighborhood, in Harlem, not today’s Manhattan Valley that runs west of Central Park from 100th to 110th Streets.
It took New York City many years to come to an agreement about the need for the Croton project. The need for water to supply a growing city resulted in numerous schemes, the most notable the Manhattan Water Company of Aaron Burr that was contrived more to fund a bank than to supply water. The bank survived, as today’s JP Morgan Chase.
Yellow fever and cholera epidemics occurred regularly in early 19th century New York. An understanding as to the cause of the epidemics was slow to develop, although Dr. Joseph Browne wrote a treatise in 1798 about the need to clean-up unsanitary conditions. Many wealthy New Yorkers who lived downtown had their water brought in buckets from the country rivers and streams to the north. The world-wide outbreak of cholera that reached New York City in 1832 was especially severe, killing more than 3,000 people. Then, in January 1835, a fire in lower Manhattan destroyed 17 blocks while firemen struggled unsuccessfully to get water out of the frozen East River. All of these events gave urgency to the need to bring in a clean and plentiful water supply.
Thanks to Mr. Jervis, the Croton project’s chief engineer, the Aqueduct was planned section-by-section, starting with the reservoir created at the Croton River Dam in Westchester County, and traveling down to Manhattan to the distributing reservoir at Murray Hill, the site at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The 41-mile length of the Aqueduct was divided into four divisions of roughly ten miles each. Many contractors worked on it, employing as many as 300 workers, many of them Irish immigrants. In all, the project had 97 sections of varying lengths, depending on the topography. Our Clendening Bridge, 1900 feet long, was Section 94. The 41-mile Aqueduct ran over a varied landscape, sometimes tunneled, sometimes above ground, and at other times over a bridge.
The Croton project had started in 1835 when the New York City Board of Water Commissioners hired Major David Bates Douglass as Chief Engineer. Major Douglass, a West Point-trained engineer, worked until October 1836, when he was dismissed, planning the 41-mile route of the Aqueduct, but not completing any plans for its structures. The Board decided he was lacking in “practical experience.” The man they hired then, John Jervis, had no university training, but he had a lot of practical experience gained from working on the Erie Canal, and the Hudson and Mohawk Railway. Jervis designed the Aqueduct’s masonry conduit, the dam on the Croton, the two reservoirs in Manhattan and the major bridges needed to cross valleys and rivers, along with gatehouses, waste weirs, ventilators, and culverts.
Mr. Jervis hired a young engineer Fayette B. Tower in 1837 when Tower was just twenty years old. Born in Waterville, New York, he had cobbled together an engineering education after missing out at an opportunity to be trained at West Point. He was doing railroad surveys in 1837 when he was hired by Jervis at $83 per month. There were other engineers hired to supervise the contractors’ work in the various divisions of the Aqueduct route, including James Renwick Jr., who went on to become a well-known American architect.
Fayette Tower plays an important role in the history of building the Croton Aqueduct because of his book of illustrations and description of the project. He also wrote letters to his mother during the construction, a resource Mr. Koeppel used when he wrote his book, listed below. Mr. Tower worked in Westchester County on the Acqueduct through 1839. Then, in 1839, construction reached Manhattan. Mr. Tower became the supervisor of the Clendening Bridge section in Bloomingdale. He married Elizabeth Huntington Phelps of Baltimore in the summer of 1839, and they settled in Bloomingdale to be near his work. We know from the letters that Elizabeth, known as Bessy, redecorated their living quarters and helped with her artistic husband’s math calculations. They are listed in the 1840 federal census of Ward 12 of Manhattan.
The 1839 contract for the Clendening Valley Bridge work was awarded to a contractor named Bishop & Campbell. The New York City Comptroller’s Report for 1841 shows a payment of $112,500 to them. While the original plan had been to make more arches over street crossings, only 98th, 99th and 100th streets were built. Three others at 96th, 97th and 101st Streets were eliminated to save money. Actually, the Water Commissioners considered eliminating all of the arches, but work on those first three had been started and it was decided to finish them. The reported discussion of the issue reveals the comment “that roads on the Upper West Side would probably not be opened for a century or two to come.” Here is another of Tower’s etchings that shows the street crossings:
After 95th Street, the Aqueduct continued in a straight line down to 85th Street where it took another angled turn across to the receiving reservoir stretching from 86th down to 79th Streets, and covering the wide block from Seventh to Sixth Avenue. This was the original 1842 Croton project known as the Yorkville Reservoir. The later reservoir, north of 86th Street, was built between 1858 and 1862 when “New Croton Water” was developed. It was designed by Olmsted with curving edges to fit more attractively into the new Central Park landscape. There was a Keeper’s House built in 1866 (destroyed in 1935) for the Overseer of both of the Central Park reservoirs. In the 1930s, the old Croton reservoir was filled in and this space became Central Park’s Great Lawn.
In April 1840 when the work on the Aqueduct in our neighborhood would have been underway after the winter break, there was labor unrest when the contractors reduced the wages of the workers. The labor unrest looked serious at first but then fizzled. The newspaper reports contain the usual mocking tone used against the Irish immigrants. The actual potential confrontation with the workers was east of the “vale of Clendening” as one report called our neighborhood.
Bessy Tower, Fayette’s beloved wife, died of consumption in early 1841. When she became ill in October 1840, he took a leave of absence to care for her, and they moved downtown to Orchard Street. He was back at work in 1841, wrapping up his supervision duties at the Clendening Bridge. Later, in September 1843, Tower married Bessy’s sister, Anna R. Phelps. They left New York after the Croton project, to live in Cumberland, Maryland. In the 1850 federal census, there is listed a 10 year old girl, Agnes Tower, listed who may have been a child from his first marriage.
Tower engaged in manufacturing in Maryland, and also had a public life, serving in the Maryland legislature and then as the Mayor of Cumberland. However, his health wasn’t good, and he died in 1857 at only 40 years old.
The work on the Aqueduct as it came into Manhattan comprised multiple projects. There were arguments over the costs of what eventually became the High Bridge over the Harlem River; for which the Commissioners considered tunneling under the River, or building a lower bridge. Eventually the High Bridge we have today was started, but it wasn’t finished until 1848, six years after the Aqueduct became operational. For some time while the High Bridge was under construction, a pipe went across the River and had a water jet that made a wondrous show for those who came in their carriages uptown to see it.
The Aqueduct crossed the Manhattan Valley at 125th Street along Amsterdam Avenue with an inverted siphon of cast-iron pipes. A siphon is defined as a pressure pipeline that carries water uphill and then downhill again on an upside-down U-shaped trajectory. The falling liquid at the top of the U pushes the liquid in front of it uphill to continue flowing on the other side by means of gravity.
In his book, Tower describes the route of the Aqueduct. “From Manhattan Valley . . . passes through a tunnel and following its course to the next work of interest is the Clendening Valley, 1900 feet across. The Aqueduct is supported by a foundation wall of dry stonework having the face laid in mortar, except over three streets where bridges are built, having an arch of 30 feet span for the carriage-way and one on either side of 10 feet span for the side walks. These bridges are over 98th, 99th, and 100th Streets.” Tower described the Clendening Valley work: “These bridges are beautiful specimens of mechanical work; indeed the whole structure across this valley has a degree of neatness, finish and taste, not surpassed by any on the line of the Aqueduct.” Lafayette Tower’s drawings were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in 1942.
Later, in the 1870s, the Clendening Valley Bridge and all the Aqueduct structure above ground was buried in underground pipes as the neighborhood was developing. The stone from the Clendening Valley Crossing was used in 1876 to build the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, at 60th Street and Columbus Avenue, according to the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, and in a 2002 New York Times article by Christopher Gray about the history of the church.
The New Croton Water project gave us the still-standing Gatehouse at Amsterdam and 113th Street, constructed in 1874, and the Gatehouse at 119th Street, constructed in 1894.
This undated photograph from Mr. Wegmann’s book, listed below, shows the destruction of the Aqueduct at West 104th Street.
Another structure that appears on old maps of the Upper West Side is the “98th Street High Service Works” built in 1879. This 170-foot tower housed the pumping operation needed to maintain water pressure. It was dressed in Wyoming Valley blue sandstone. Its pumping operation was coal-fired, pumping the water 100 feet high in its six foot wide standpipe. A similar water tower, still standing, was built in 1872 near High Bridge for the same purpose. This photo from Mr. Wegmann’s book shows the 98th Street Tower in the 1890s, on the block just west of Columbus Avenue.
There’s another photo of the 98th Street in this brochure produced by the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group back when it began as the Park West Neighborhood History Group:
There are two other Manhattan locations where you can see the remains of the Old Croton Aqueduct. One is at the main branch of New York Public Library, which was the site of the Murray Hill Receiving Reservoir. Here you can see a piece of the reservoir wall on the lower level of the South Court near the Celeste Auditorium.
The second spot is in Central Park where the sloping reservoir wall is tucked up against the east end of the Central Park Precinct, according to the Ephemera New York site. The Untapped Cities site notes also that the back retaining wall of the Precinct parking lot is indeed the north wall of the old Croton reservoir. And, of course, much more of the Old Croton system in Westchester County can be hiked and visited at the many sites described on the site of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct.
Koeppel, Gerald Water for Gotham: A History Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000
Wegmann, Edward The Water-Supply of the City of New York 1658-1895 John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1896
Lankton, Larry D. “Valley Crossings on the Old Croton Aqueduct” in The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology Vol 4, No 1, pp. 27-42 (1978)
Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct published map “Old Croton Aqueduct in New York City” and online at https://aqueduct.org/
Tower, Fayette B. Illustrations of The Croton Aqueduct New York, 1843. Available online:
New York Times archive: http://www.nytimes.com
This wonderful work by Columbia students on the Croton Waterworks:
Genealogy and census information: http://www.ancestry.com
John Noble Wilford “How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis”