In the early 1800s, New York City was fast outgrowing its infrastructure. The city’s few wells were polluted, and the overworked water system spread cholera and other diseases. In 1837, the city began construction on an aqueduct modeled on those of ancient Rome. The Croton Aqueduct would transport fresh, clean water from the Croton River to Manhattan, a journey of 41 miles, completely powered by gravity. It was a massive project, starting with a dam and continuing to a bricked tunnel through the city’s underground to reservoirs in what is now Bryant Park and Central Park. When the Croton Aqueduct went into service in 1842, it was cause for a citywide celebration.
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Although it has been replaced by newer water delivery systems, Croton Aqueduct is still there. In the 1960s, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation bought 26 miles of the line in the city. The above-ground land is now a public trail, not very well known, but which offers an astonishing view of New York City.
Even more incredibly, above ground, the Croton Aqueduct became a nature trail and public right of way that follows the winding path of this long tunnel into Manhattan. It passes through people’s back gardens, grand mansions, and abandoned ruins; it bisects motorways, Main Streets and dense forests alike. In essence, to wander down the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail is to gain a behind-the-curtain glimpse of a New York that hardly anyone knows is there.
A preservation group also offers underground tours where you can see the bricks laid before the Civil War still standing as sturdy as ever. Luke J. Spencer takes us on a photographic tour of what the trail offers, plus a short history the Croton Aqueduct, at Atlas Obscura.