Architect: John B. Jervis
Location: Over the Harlem River, from the Highbridge Park in Manhattan to West 170th Street in the Bronx
Does the High Bridge have the most lopsided importance-to-fame ratio of all city landmarks? I hadn’t heard about it until about five years ago, and only saw it a few months ago. Even if you live in Harlem, to see it requires a real hoof down through its park, down its staircases, to get a look. (The other option is driving underneath it.) And even then, you can’t get on it. It’s blocked off, uncrossable since the 1960s, thanks to folks dropping debris from it onto Circle Line boats fording the Harlem River. Its glory, though, was premised on its ability not to carry traffic, but to keep the city wet.
As I’ve detailed before, some of the best sources of water had already been polluted or overtaxed thanks to short-sighted growth, and many of the wells and cisterns yielded a brackish drink. The solution lay in tapping the resources of the Croton River in Westchester. Bringing that water to New York City required the construction of a massive complex of dams, reservoirs, and piping called the Croton Aqueduct. When it was finally functional in 1842, it was forty-one miles, longer than anything extant, longer than anything produced by the engineering genius of the Romans. And with each mile, it dipped thirteen inches, propelling water this great distance through simple gravity, not pumps. (Water spilled from source to use, in other words.)
The water crossed the Harlem River into Manhattan via the High Bridge, the grandest feature of the whole system, and an obvious quotation of historical precedent. (It should be noted that the aqueduct was functional six years before the bridge was completed; temporary piping was used in the interim.) John Jervis, the chief engineer for the aqueduct, saw it as unnecessarily magnificent, a sop to landowners who wanted a tourist attraction. But a low bridge would have blocked off future river traffic (which at the time was blocked by Macomb’s Dam further south), and the technology for an underground tunnel was judged to be not quite there yet.
Thanks to the growing city and rising standards in sanitation, the Croton Aqueduct faced the prospect of obsolescence almost as quickly as it was built. In 1864, another 90” pipe was installed above the other two, and it still wasn’t enough. Starting with the New Croton Aqueduct (built nearly parallel to the original), other water systems were constructed to supplement and eventually supercede Old Croton, which finally went offline in 1955. The High Bridge was shut down earlier than that, thanks to fears of German sabotage in the wake of World War I. (Too familiar, all too familiar.) As it now carried no water, and the small width between the bridges’ piers was deemed unsuitable for large modern ships fording the Harlem River, there was some call to demolish the bridge entirely. Luckily, a compromise was set up to remove some of the piers and arches with a steel arch, leaving the rest intact.
Today, New York City uses over a billion gallons a day — and a single tunnel in the 2011 water system leaks up to three times as the entire 1842 system supplied.