Places that Matter

The High Bridge

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High Bridge illuminated, 2015, photo by Amit Nukheja, courtesy of Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct
High Bridge illuminated, 2015, photo by Amit Nukheja, courtesy of Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct
High Bridge Illuminated, Oct. 2015, photo by E. Macnow, NYC Parks, courtesy of Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct
High Bridge walkway, photo by Gwynneth Malin, 2016
Informational plaque along the bridge's walkway, photo by Gwynneth Malin, 2016
"High Bridge, New York." The New York Public Library Digital Collections
"Stone steps at High Bridge, New York City." The New York Public Library Digital Collections
The city's oldest standing bridge, once again open to the public
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Gwynneth C. Malin for Place Matters

The High Bridge, completed in 1848, is the oldest standing bridge in New York City. Today, you can walk from the Bronx to Manhattan in about seven to ten minutes by crossing the High Bridge. If you are on the bridge on a hot summer day, you will see young people with their towels and swimsuits walking to the pool on the Manhattan side. The High Bridge, which connects the neighborhoods of Washington Heights in Manhattan with Highbridge in the Bronx, was built to transport the Croton Aqueduct (now called the Old Croton Aqueduct) across the Harlem River. The Croton system, completed in 1842, consisted of a dam on the Croton River in Yorktown in Westchester county, three reservoirs, and one closed aqueduct to connect them.  The Croton Dam (now called the Old Croton Dam) backed the river into the first reservoir, from which the water was siphoned down into the aqueduct.  Built just below ground level and covered with earth, the aqueduct spanned 41.5 miles. It transported water by gravity from the watershed to the city.  All the work of building the aqueduct was done by hand with a shovel, mainly by Irish immigrants. 

After crossing the Harlem River, the water went back underground, continuing its journey through Manhattan to the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir, the second reservoir of the system, located at the site of the present-day Great Lawn of Central Park. From the Yorkville Reservoir, the water made its way through underground pipes to the third reservoir, the distributing reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (now the site of the New York Public Library).
 
Begun in 1837, the Croton project was under the direction of Engineer John B. Jervis, who had worked on the Erie Canal. During the planning stages, there was much discussion about how best to cross the Harlem River. Chief Engineer, David Douglass, Jervis’ predecessor, had advocated for a high bridge to carry the water across the river. Jervis suggested a low bridge, arguing that there was little navigation on the river.  The water commissioners agreed to Jervis’s solution because it would be easier, faster and cheaper to build. Yet, opponents of this plan complained that a low bridge would negatively impact the local scenery.  City council members and local property-owners argued that a high bridge was more suited to the site and they lobbied the State legislature for their cause.
 
In May of 1839, the State legislature passed a law mandating that either a tunnel or a high-level bridge be constructed at the site thereby overruling the earlier decision of the water commissioners. Since Jervis was opposed to the idea of a tunnel under the river due to his concerns about leakage at the bottom of the tunnel caused by the high water pressure, he began planning the construction of what came to be called the High Bridge. 
 
The High Bridge was an extremely ambitious feat of engineering.  Its fifteen arches supported a bridge of fourteen hundred and fifty feet. Across the bridge and just under its surface, two thirty-six inch cast iron pipes carried approximately thirty-six million gallons of water per day to New York. The Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842 with much fanfare in the city, including public celebrations held on June 27th at the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir, on July 4th at the Murray Hill Reservoir, and October 14th at City Hall Park after a festive parade.  Because the High Bridge was not completed until 1848, between 1842 and 1848, water traveled across the Harlem River in a low-level pipe. It took nearly ten years to build the High Bridge and the cost was $963,427. Writing in 1848, the year the High Bridge was completed, Fayette B. Tower predicted that the High Bridge would “stand as a monument to the genius of enterprize [sic] of the age.”
 
In the years after 1848, water use increased dramatically due to the waste of water, more indoor plumbing, and the dramatic rise in population. The population on the island of Manhattan was 515,547 in 1850 and it grew to 942,292 by 1870.  In response to continued need, in 1861, the city completed a project to expand the water capacity of the Croton Aqueduct by raising the High Bridge by six feet and by adding a larger main on top of the two existing pipes, so that delivery could be increased from 72,000,000 to 95,000,000 gallons per day.
 
With its dramatic arches and graceful span across the river, the High Bridge and environs became a popular daytrip for urbanites seeking respite from the bustle of the city.  Made accessible by the pedestrian walkway along the High Bridge, which was completed in 1864, the High Bridge attracted both New Yorkers and tourists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar to the High Line today, businesses, hotels, and restaurants sprung up in the area surrounding this picturesque walkway.  
 
A favorite leisure destination made the High Bridge a much reproduced visual trope. A hand-colored stereo view memorialized this image of the High Bridge as a souvenir for visitors.  To visit the site, day-trippers hired a coach for five dollars or they took a bus from the Harlem Railway terminal for fifty cents round trip.
 
An 1885 Harper’s Weekly article made a concerted effort to emphasize the bridge’s function.  “High Bridge, it must be remembered, is not a thoroughfare. Indeed, it is not a bridge for traffic at all, but the structure whereupon the Croton Aqueduct is extended across the river.”  This article made special mention of the section of the High Bridge where the covering had been removed and “the stream which conveys more than 80 million gallons of water per day and supplies the metropolis is visible.”  With the decision to design the High Bridge as a dramatic series of arches spanning the Harlem River, Jervis created a permanent spectacle, a monument to running water from Croton that continued to garner attention from visitors and the press over the years.
 
As the High Bridge’s popularity increased in the 1880s and 1890s, the Department of Public Works used its construction expertise to encourage visitors to spend leisure time there. In June 1886, Scientific American reported on the High Bridge as a favorite resort, proclaiming that the main attraction was the famous bridge. Since most visitors approached the High Bridge from the Bronx side by ascending wooden steps in disrepair, safe access to the bridge became a concern. In 1885, the Department of Public Works remedied this situation by constructing a grand stone stairway.
 
The High Bridge enjoyed remarkable longevity as a leisure destination. Numerous postcards from the early 1900s, depict the bridge and its environs as a bucolic recreational location. Some feature the boating opportunities and some highlight the nearby Harlem River Speedway, opened in 1898, as a race course for horses and buggies. Walking across the bridge, racing horses on the speedway, taking cruises on the river, and rowing competitions for crew boats were each popular activities connected to the High Bridge.  The bridge and its environs came to be seen as a great public park with great public works at its center.  
 
After a period of closure in the 1970s, and as a result of lobbying efforts by The High Bridge Coalition and the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to fund the restoration of the bridge as a pedestrian walkway. Restoration began in 2012 and The High Bridge reopened to the public in June 2015. The High Bridge is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. with some seasonal changes in the hours. Today, public signage about the history of New York’s water supply appears in images and plaques along the walkway of the bridge.
 
(Posted December 2016)