Amsterdam and 163rd Street to 5th Avenue and 42nd Street (NY Public Library)
We made it!
We started exactly where we left off, at the subway station at Amsterdam and 163rd Street. We headed east, along 161st Street cutting through Sylvan Terrace and taking a brief detour through the grounds of the Morris-Jumel Mansion before we got back on the Aqueduct.
I must digress, though, a give a little bit of history here.
Sylvan Terrace (above) is a delicious bit of the 19th century that’s alive and well right on the border between Hamilton and Washington Heights. I stumbled upon once, decades ago before the Internet was invented and was utterly mystified. What was it? How was it still here? Just — huh? It is so unexpected. According to my good friend Wikipedia, “Sylvan Terrace, located where West 161st Street would normally be, was originally the carriage drive of the Morris estate. In 1882-83 twenty wooden houses, designed by Gilbert R. Robinson Jr., were constructed on the drive. Initially rented out to laborers and working class civil servants, the houses were restored in 1979-81. They are now some of the few remaining framed houses in Manhattan.” So there you have it.
But if that was the carriage drive, where did it lead? Well, to what is called today the Morris-Jumel Mansion of course!
Forgive me while I drop some knowledge here, for this is one of my very favorite oases of bald history left in Manhattan. Originally built in 1765 (before America was born!) by a British officer named Roger Morris, it’s had a storied life. Roger Morris married Mary Phillipse, a daughter of Frederick Phillipse of Phillipse Manor fame. Loyalists, the Morrises had to go into hiding during the war and their grand mansion was used as a headquarters by George Washington/the British/the Hessians during the Revolutionary War. Roger went back to England and Mary cooled it in Yonkers on Dad’s estate until the war was over. Then they all hightailed it to merrie olde England because, you know, Loyalists weren’t so popular over here then.
After the war it was a popular tavern along the Albany Post Road (hey, we have one of those up here too! Oh wait, they’re the same road!) A French fellow named Jumel bought it in 1810 and lived here with his wife (and former mistress, so it is said!) Eliza. After Jumel died in a tragic carriage accident, Eliza married Aaron Burr right here in the parlor. (Yes, THAT Aaron Burr, co-star of the musical HAMILTON.) I could go on, but let’s just say that the Daughters of the American Revolution purchased the house in the early 1900s and it’s been a museum more or less ever since. Do go see it!
We ended up making a loop around the mansion in our search for Edgecombe Avenue and the Aqueduct, and it is really astonishing that this place still stands, more or less intact though smaller in acreage, after 253 years. Kind of like America, no? Here’s a view from the back of the mansion – the expanse of lawn and giant trees in the midst of upper Manhattan is almost disorienting:
Okay, digression done – back to the Aqueduct.
We made our way down the hill on 160st Street to Edgecombe Avenue, where we picked up the Aqueduct on the southern edge of Highbridge Park. We would be remiss if we did not point out 555 Edgecombe Avenue on the corner, where luminaries such as Count Basie, Paul Robeson and Joe Louis once lived.
Here’s a view of the last bit of bucolic, tree-shaded Aqueduct for a while:
Looking north, back up to Highbridge. Looking south, towards Edgecombe.
Running down Edgecombe, you pass Coogan’s Bluff and the John T. Brush stairway. Back in the day (1890 – 1963) Coogan’s Bluff overlooked the NY Giants stadium (aka the Polo Grounds) and became a popular nickname for it. If you couldn’t afford the price of ticket to a game (which, in those days’s probably cost ten cents!) you could watch it from up here. But the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1957, and the Polo Grounds was demolished in 1963 to make room for the Polo Grounds Towers. All that’s left of this is the John Brush Stairway that, in its heyday, brought fans from the neighborhood down to the Stadium.
Here’s a nice little sign that give you all the details. I like it when there are historical signs:
And here, just in the name of thoroughness, is a shot of the steps themselves:
This next bit found us directly on the street as we zigged and zagged to stay as close to the Aqueduct as possible.
The Aqueduct goes underneath buildings as it crosses west from Edgecombe Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue on West 154th. It is interesting to note that many of the buildings around here, from 155th to 151st streets have odd angles, as they were built to avoid the Aqueduct right-of-way. In the picture on the right, you can see the undeveloped slice of land under which the Aqueduct runs. And on the left, you can see the flatiron-esque shape of the brick building bordering it. (The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct map calls these “Aqueduct Clues” which I love, because you have to be very aware to notice them.)
On the corner of Amsterdam and 154th is the gatehouse for Trinity Cemetery, the overflow burial ground for downtown’s Trinity Church. Home to luminaries such as John James Audubon (sketcher of pretty flowers and birds), Clement Clarke Moore (author of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and one-time Ossining resident) and John Jacob Astor (scion of the Astor family who made their first fortune selling beaver and old pelts.) We were tempted to stop and look around, but realized we still had about 7 miles to run and a train schedule to keep, so we keep on.
Running down Amsterdam was actually much faster and easier than we expected. It being about 10am on a Thursday morning, traffic of all sorts was fairly light.
Here’s an interesting building on the corner of 152nd and Amsterdam. I have no idea what it was — please write in and tell me if you do!
Now, I DO know what this next building is, found on Amsterdam between 151st and 152nd — the Joseph Loth & Co. Silk Ribbon Factory:
If you look really closely, you can just read “Joseph Loth & Co.” spelled out in bricks under the chimney.
Check out this New York Times article from 1986 for more about Joseph Loth and his ribbons.
Next site is City College (141st – 130th Streets) — can you believe how intricate and elegant this public institution of higher learning is? Founded in 1847 by Townshend Harris to serve all students, regardless of race, religion and wealth, he yearned to create an institution that would “know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.” (This was in direct opposition to the implicit mandate of nearby Columbia University that was, at the time, mostly restricted to the sons of wealthy Protestants.) The Neo-Gothic portion of the campus was built in the early 1900s and remains impressive today.
Now did you know that on 126th Street and Amsterdam you can buy your own live poultry?
This place has been around for as long as I can remember and I’ve always been curious about it, but have never had the courage to go inside. I mean, can you just take the live birds with you and butcher them in the privacy of your own home? Or do you watch them butcher them in front of you? Either way, thinking about this too much makes me want to go full vegan. (But I’m okay with buying dead chickens and turkeys as long as they are cleanly wrapped in plastic from the supermarket. I know, hypocrite.)
Here’s our first siting of anything Aqueduct-relevant for a few miles — the circa 1894 119th Street Gatehouse:
Here’s a recent article from the New York Times detailing the city’s plan to turn this landmarked building into a cafe/restaurant. I love the idea of repurposing old things as long as their history is respected.
Moving on down Amsterdam, we pass the stately campus of Columbia University, no longer restricted to the sons of wealthy Protestants:
Down three blocks, at 113th Street is the terminus of the brick tunnel of the Aqueduct. Built in 1874, this Gatehouse marks the spot where the brick tunnel was replaced by piping in the 1860s – 1870s.
Next up is the divine St. John the Divine, one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a few in my time!)
We stepped inside for a moment, but there’s an admission fee and none of us had cash, so we just took a quick look at the few stained glass windows we could see and kept going.
Two blocks down, at 107th and Amsterdam, is New York City’s only Youth Hostel, catering to backpackers and bargain-hunting tourists alike. We noted that the Victorian-looking red brick building had begun life in 1883 as a Residence for Respectable Aged Indigent Females. We couldn’t help wondering what constituted “Respectable” in those days, and how one would prove respectability. And can you imagine being turned away because you were not deemed respectable? New York was a heartless place.
The next Aqueduct clues we found were embedded into the sidewalk just as you enter Central Park at 85th Street:
It’s funny to think that I grew up right near here and probably walked over these manhole covers many times without realizing it. Perhaps that partially explains my fascination with the Aqueduct?
Now we’re closing in on the first of three reservoirs that held what Lydia Maria Child, an author of some renown, gushed about in 1842: “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!”
Only one reservoir still exists today, the one now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (in honor of her efforts to save this and other historical sites around Manhattan):
But, if you know where to look, you can see the remains of the other two reservoirs. The first was located on what is now the Great Lawn, just south of the Jackie Onassis reservoir.
Here’s what it originally looked like, as noted on Oscar Hinrich’s 1875 map of Central Park:
You can see it was smaller and much more geometric compared to the pond-like reservoir to the north. Originally called the York Hill Reservoir, it was completed in 1842 and featured 38 foot high walls that were 20 feet thick at the base.
We found the remains of the stone walls at the northern end, abutting the NYC Park Police station:
And then to the south, just barely peeking out of the ground right in front of the Delacorte Theatre:
Crossing Central Park, we ran straight down 5th Avenue all the way to 42nd Street. Unsurprisingly, there are no indications of anything Aqueduct along this dense, built up section of Manhattan.
But, when you get to the New York Public Library, if you ask the nice lady at the Information desk, she might take you to the staircase down to the basement that features the remains of the original reservoir that stood here and received the first blessings of the Croton Aqueduct on October 14, 1842.
First, here are a couple of shots of the reservoir in its glory:
And here’s what’s left:
Pretty cool that they repurposed it for the foundation of the library, no?
So there you have it. A 41-mile engineering marvel that changed the lives of millions, hidden beneath our feet. I hope you have a chance to walk over some part of this piece of American history some day. And, as always, if I’ve left something out, or gotten something wrong, please leave me a comment!