The Croton Aqueduct, Part I

The Croton Aqueduct is a favorite for local runners. It’s actually a 41-mile long narrow, ribbon of a park that stretches from the Croton Dam to mid-Manhattan. Unpaved, flat, protected, and with a gradual downhill incline, it used to bring water from the Croton Reservoir all the way into Manhattan.

It’s really one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century, so I can’t let this opportunity pass without giving you a thumbnail sketch of this marvel.

Now, technically it is known as the “Old Croton Aqueduct,” hence the “OCA” signposts you’ll see periodically along the way. It was built between 1837 and 1842 and was in use until about 1890 when the New Croton Dam and Aqueduct were built.

Finding enough fresh water was a huge problem for 19th century Manhattan, as its population exploded after the Revolutionary War.  Also, despite the fact that the Romans had managed to invent and build sewers in their cities centuries earlier, this vital piece of technological evolution hadn’t made it to the New World and so their sanitation was not really up to snuff in those days.  Yup, early New Yorkers just emptied their chamber pots onto the streets, relieved themselves in cesspools, and had horses fouling the roads, all of which (and more) trickled into the wells, cisterns and underground springs that provided drinking water. Not surprisingly, people were getting sick and dying from all sorts of loathsome diseases that come from imbibing a side of e coli with breakfast – epidemics like yellow fever and cholera were rampant.

So, in 1833, the city engaged Major David Bates Douglas, formerly an engineering professor at West Point, to survey a route and oversee the massive project.  Imagine the bushwhacking his team had to do back then, coming all the way down from Croton on horseback, choosing a route, going through peoples’ farms and estates, making exact measurements, setting spikes. That certainly is a story in itself . . .

Anyway, for reasons I haven’t discovered in my sitting-on-the-couch-and-looking-through-the-Internet research, Douglas was fired in 1837 (and went off to become President of Kenyon College as one does), and an Engineer named John B. Jervis took over. He saw this project through to the end (and got his name on the plaques), building a dam (the Old Croton Dam), digging tunnels,  laying pipe, creating reservoirs, building bridges – when you stop to think about, this was a Herculean effort! And just think — it was all likely done entirely by hand – they might have had some sort of steam shovels/excavators back then, but probably not. Hey, the Irish were much cheaper.

The plan was that the water would come down to the city via the aqueduct and pause in the Receiving Reservoir. That still exists, and you’ve probably seen it if you’ve ever visited Central Park — it’s the body of water in the middle of the park, now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. No longer used as part of the water system, it’s just a cool, 1.8 mile jogging track around a manmade lake in the upper middle of Manhattan.

The water then traveled downtown to the Distributing Reservoir located on what is now the site of the New York Public Library — 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. This was a massive structure, Egyptian in both size and design.  Check out this drawing:

Depósito_Croton

And this photograph (not precisely sure what year this would have been, but likely circa 1895 – 1901):

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Fun fact: you can even see remnants of these reservoir walls embedded in the Library building today!  Lookie here:

Vestiges_of_Croton_Distributing_Reservoir_embedded_in_the_foundation_of_the_New_York_Public_Library

The Aqueduct began carrying water to the city in June of 1842, and officially opened on October 14, 1842 to great hoopla.

Lydia Maria Child, an author of some renown, wrote about this day: “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!”

(It seems so quaint, her excitement at fresh water, but I bet the citizens of Cape Town, South Africa would echo these emotions today.   As of this writing, they’re about a month away from running out of water.)

Here’s a ribbon that was printed for the “Introduction of the Croton Water” to Manhattan:

Silk Ribbon from Croton Aqueduct Celebration

from the New York Historical Society website — Gift of the Virginia Historical Society

Okay, so this has become less of a thumbnail and more of a straight out history lesson, sorry about that. But can you tell I find the Croton Aqueduct fascinating?  (Here’s an excellent blog post about all of the above, with much more detail and lots of pictures.  Enjoy!)

Tune in next time to read more about the Aqueduct and the running project I’ve been pursuing (on and off) for the past year — to run the length of the Aqueduct.

Here’s the link to part II.

 

 

Croton Gorgeous – The Ottinger Cottage

IMG_0861Perhaps you’ve seen this sign? It’s just off the Croton Aqueduct and you’ll pass it if you walk up from the parking lot in Croton Gorge Park.

It came to my attention when I saw the following email on a neighborhood Google group:

Can anyone tell me what that house off of the aqueduct trail is? Does someone live there full time? How do they get there if the dam is closed! Do they have an actual address? They have a sign up that says @Crotongorgeous. I walk past it with my dogs all the time.  Thanks!

WHAT house, I thought?  I run here at least once a week and had no idea what this was about.  So I went off to do a little exploring.  And yes, I’d passed it many times but had somehow completely ignored it.  It’s about a mile south of the Dam and down a little ways off the Aqueduct, but you will see it if you’re looking for it.  From the Aqueduct, it looks like a snug little stone cottage (which is exactly what it is.)  But who lived here?  Who LIVES here?

Well, arguably, its most famous inhabitant was a man named Egon Ottinger, who lived here up until 1992.  According to a delightful article published that year in the New York Times, Egon lived here right until he passed away at the age of 93, still splitting his own wood, patching his own clothes and wearing his late wife’s glasses because his broke.  (Reading between the delightful lines, one might assume he was a bit of a hoarder too.)  Even more interesting is the fact that Egon left a $20 million dollar estate, earned from a career working in the shipping insurance business and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos.  A frugal, simple man, he left the bulk of his estate to the Inwood Canoe Club, the YMCA, Teatown and other wholesome, outdoorsy organizations. And oh, someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there might even be an Ottinger Wing at the Croton Library.

A neighbor who knew him told me the following:  “If you write this up, I think it’s important to add that he donated to colleges with work-study programs because he believed in the importance of work experience. He had not attended college, and I’m not sure how far his secondary education extended, but he rose to be the top executive of an insurance company.

One of my fondest memories of him was the contraption that he build to haul firewood up his steps. It was the bowl of a wheelbarrow bolted to his old wooden skis, and a rope to pull it up.

I would frequently catch him doing things he shouldn’t be doing, like standing high up on a ladder clipping the vines off his wall. When I, at least 30 years younger, offered to do it, he said to me,  “Oh no, it’s too dangerous.”  

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What an idyllic, otherworldly place to live, tucked just next to the Aqueduct and at the end of a gravel road up from Croton Gorge Park!  Apparently, the cottage was built about 1930 or so and the Ottinger’s purchased the property on May 1, 1946 for $26,500.  At least initially, the property was known as “The Hemlocks.”

And then there’s this stone tablet I photographed from a distance:

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Upon Egon’s passing, the property became part of Croton Gorge Park and is now occupied by a Park employee.

The world is a better place because of people like Ottinger!