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):

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 9.47.59 AM

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.

 

 

Lorraine Hansberry Lived in Croton!

Lorraine Hansberry Lived in Croton!

Do you know who she is? Lorraine Hansberry? She was an African-American playwright whose most famous play, “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959.

IMG_1112Copy of Playbill from the original Broadway production on display at the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

If you weren’t forced to read the play in high school or college, you’ve probably run across it somehow — the play was revived in 2014 with Denzel Washington.

IMG_1113Copy of Playbill  from the 2014 revival on display at the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

There’s also a movie of it out there, starring Sidney Poitier.   It was pretty groundbreaking for its time.

Here’s the cover of the play, with a photo of Lorraine Hansberry taken in Croton-on-Hudson:

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Anyway, today I had one of those moments where the universe creates perfect synchronicity, and it all had to do with Lorraine and Croton and running.

At the first waterstop this morning (the Taconic Road Runners thoughtfully put out water and Gatorade every Saturday morning for the group run ), I asked my friend Fran if she would be up for changing up our route a little to run past what I thought was Lorraine Hansberry’s house. “It’s on Bridge Road,” I said, “Just down the hill from the Danish Home.”

“Bridge Lane,” corrected another woman at the waterstop. “It’s Bridge Lane — I know, because I live there!”

“Oh wow, what a coincidence!”  I said, while guzzling icy-cold orange Gatorade.  “Do you happen to know where Lorraine Hansberry’s house is, then? I think I’ve found the address but I’m not sure.”

“Well, funny you should ask – I live in her house.”

I was floored. What? WHAT? No way! I’ve never seen this runner lady before and yet there she was, overhearing my conversation with Fran and living in Lorraine Hansberry’s house!

We chatted for a bit, and then ran off in opposite directions, but we had her blessing to go and take a gander at her house. (To be honest, I’d done a drive by on Friday and snapped this picture with my phone.)

Hansberry House

Now, according to a recent PBS American Masters documentary titled “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” Hansberry supposedly called her home in Croton “Chitterling Heights.” All sorts of literati came up from New York City to visit.  (Croton has long been a haven for artists and activists – Lillian Nordica, Isadora Duncan, Gloria Swanson, John Reed, Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Lorraine Hansberry are just a few who settled here.  Don’t worry, I’ll be running by their houses and blogging about them too!)

Hansberry and her husband Robert Nemiroff moved to Croton in about 1961. Not only were they both artists (he wrote “Cindy, oh Cindy,” a Top 40 song, among other things.  Here’s his obituary for more), but both were activists, especially dedicated to causes that promoted racial and sexual equality.   Fun fact – in 1964, Hansberry was integral in organizing and participating in one of the first fundraisers in the New York City area for the civil rights movement, held at Croton’s Temple Israel.   (The 1963 Birmingham church bombings catalyzed many on the East Coast.)   She was the MC of the event, and brought in other like-minded celebrities, including Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, and Judy Collins. They raised over $11,000 for organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality – Freedom Summer voter registration project (CORE), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP.

Some of the money raised went towards the purchase of a Ford station wagon for the Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, men who were subsequently murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. (More info here and here.)

If you’re so inclined, here’s a link to the PBS documentary.  Fast forward to about 1:19 in if you want to learn more about Hansberry’s Croton years and the fate of that Ford station wagon . . .)

Tragically, Hansberry died in 1965 at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer.  She is buried in Croton-on-Hudson in the Bethel Cemetery.

Hansberry grave