Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Imperial Rome" in New York City - The High Bridge Aqueduct

High Bridge in 1900 with the High Bridge Watchtower in the background - from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the early years of the 19th century the water supply in New York City was no longer adequate for the burgeoning population. A spring-fed reservoir at Reade and Centre Streets supplied many citizens; however wells and cisterns were still widely used. Tainted water led to disease and, finally, to the catastrophic cholera epidemic of 1832 that killed 3,515 in a population of 250,000.

In November of that year Colonel DeWitt Clinton suggested that fresh water be brought into the city from the Croton River in Westchester. The State Legislature quickly established a temporary Croton Water Commission in 1833 to scrutinize the logistics of the plan.

A major point of consideration was the Harlem River which cut a deep trough across the route of the proposed pipeline. Civil engineer David Bates Douglass recommended an “Aqueduct Bridge, 1,188 feet long consisting of nine plain semicircular arches.” It would rise 126 feet above the water line. He envisioned a bridge that would “lend to New York some of the grandeur of imperial Rome.”

The Commission, now permanent, ordered separate surveys to be done by Douglass and another engineer John Martineau. Martineau recommended a “low bridge” using an inverted siphon system which would cost an estimated $426,027 as opposed to the high bridge at $935,745. Douglass stood firm in his preference for the monumental high bridge and, in 1836, he was replaced as Chief Engineer by John B. Jervis.

Although the Commissioners and the Chief Engineer remained in favor of the low bridge, the citizens of New York wanted the more colossal, Roman-looking aqueduct. It was argued that because the aqueduct would be the most impressive public work project of its time, only a monumental aqueduct was suitable. Finally in 1839 the State Legislature broke the stalemate by handing down an ultimatum: the Commission would either construct a tunnel under the river or built the high bridge. The bridge won. Around this time the proposed bridge, officially known as the Harlem River Bridge, began being called the High Bridge in the press and sundry reports.

Fledgling architect James Renwick Jr. who would go on to design, among other notable structures, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, worked on the project. Construction began in 1837, the system using the time-tested gravity feed process which dropped 13 inches per mile to keep the water flowing.

Stereopticon view of Victorian ladies strolling in front of the High Bridge in 1880

Not completed until 1848 and costing just under $1 million, the Roman-inspired structure was instrumental in furnishing clear, fresh water to New Yorkers and initiating celebrations city-wide. It measured 1,450 feet in length, with 15 masonry arches – the eight standing in the river with 114 feet clearance above the water line were 80 feet wide, the seven on land were 50 feet wide.

Within only two years, however, it was evident that the two 3-foot diameter pipes were insufficient to keep the city adequately supplied. Therefore in 1860 a third pipe, 90.5” in diameter, was laid over the original two pipes and the sides of the bridge were raised another six feet.

1849 water color by Fanny Palmer, executed just after the High Bridge's completion

Victorian New Yorkers flocked to the scenic bridge for strolls along its pedestrian walkway and for picnics along the river banks. It was widely hailed as an engineering marvel and an architectural triumph, deemed “majestic and lofty” shortly after completion. Stereopticon slides were produced and it became routine subject matter for landscape artists.  Century Magazine deemed it "the noblest civic monument in the United States."  When, in 1873, the picturesque High Bridge Watchtower was constructed to equalize the water pressure from the Croton Aqueduct, the area became even more popular for weekend strolls.

Jules Vallee Guerin's "High Bridge" 1905 from The Century Magazine, October 1902

As the United States entered World War I, the aqueduct was closed down for fear that the city’s water supply could be sabotaged. Water was supplied through a series of tunnels. Shortly thereafter the Army Corps of Engineers recommended demolition of the High Bridge for enhanced navigation of the river.

By 1923, with the bridge in imminent danger, citizen groups as well as arts and engineering factions nationwide rallied against the proposed destruction. Scientific American magazine derided the plan as “an act of vandalism without precedent in the history of our country.”

The 1927 steel-girder replacement of five stone arches to accommodate river traffic.

The bridge survived albeit with a 360-foot span of five arches removed, replaced by a single steel arch. The compromise, costing about $1 million, was executed in 1927.  Water still flowed over the High Bridge in 1939 when 24 million gallons a day passed over the spans.  By the late 1950s, the area around the High Bridge had become neglected and the bridge itself used by vandals and delinquents.  Michael Farmer, a 15-year-old disabled by p0lio, was slain in the adjoining park on July 30, 1957.  On April 21 of the following year, a gang of teens tossed sticks, bricks and rocks from the bridge onto a Circle Line excursion boat, injuring four passengers and a little over a week later a 13-year old girl was beaten by three youths on the bridge.  In reaction the High Bridge was closed to pedestrian use.

In 2009 funding began for restoration of the High Bridge which would bring back pedestrian and bicycle access. Lichtenstein Consulting Engineers and Chu & Gassman Consulting Engineers were commissioned in early 2010 to provide proposals for the restoration. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Hi, Interesting post. I have been collecting information on the High Bridge and Highbridge Park. See my blog I have a section on The High Bridge in Art. You might find this particularly interesting. I do not have a source for the Jules Guerin work. I did not want to copy it without permission. Do you mind telling me where it is located or how I can get permission to put it on my blog?

    1. that particular image came from Century Magazine

      that should have been attributed. my apologies.