The Croton Water System

Croton Falls Dam Today

Croton Falls Dam Today

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Town of Southeast was a prospering upstate New York community. The Borden Milk Factory was the cornerstone of a thriving dairy industry. Small factories, the railroad and local iron mines employed hundreds of local residents. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the economic and physical landscape of Southeast would be dramatically altered when the upper reaches of the Croton River were dammed to supply water for New York City.

Farmlands were flooded and many businesses and homes were condemned for the construction of the Croton Water System.

With a burgeoning population of 30,000, at the end of the 18th century New York City needed a source of fresh water. The City had no sewage system and most of is wells were polluted. Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and yellow fever were commonplace. Water supplies for fire fighting were inadequate and fires raged unchecked destroying entire city blocks.

The New York City Common Council decided to create a large reservoir on the Croton River and to bring the water into the city via an aqueduct system. The Town of Southeast was dramatically affected as eventually four reservoirs were built within its boundaries: East Branch Reservoir, Middle Branch Reservoir, Bog Brook Reservoir and Diverting Reservoir.

The Croton River originates in Southern Dutchess County. It flows through Putnam and Westchester Counties, entering the Hudson River at Croton-on-Hudson. Its watershed covers 360 square miles and produces approximately 400 million gallons daily.

In 1837, under the direction of engineer John Jervis', work began on the construction of the Croton Dam, six miles upstream from where the Croton enters the Hudson River. The dam measured 50 feet high by 270 feet long producing a reservoir with a holding capacity of 36 million gallons. Four hundred acres of farms and homes were flooded. Local landowners and farmers sought legal redress, but the State of New York determined that as long as landowners were fairly compensated, New York City had the right to condemn property in order to ensure an adequate and clean water supply.

Dam Construction Begins

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The water was transported to Manhattan by a 41- mile long aqueduct measuring 8 feet high by 7 feet wide. Twelve tunnels and numerous bridges were constructed including a 100-foot high bridge that crossed over the Harlem River. Large pipes conveyed the water to the Yorkville Reservoir in Manhattan (today's Central Park Great Lawn) before diverting the water to the 42nd Street Reservoir. The latter reservoir was later eliminated for the construction of the New York Public Library. On June 23, 1842, water flowed from the Croton Aqueduct into New York City for the first time. The project had cost over 12 million dollars.

The Croton Dam and Aqueduct system was intended to meet New York City's need for centuries, but quickly proved to be inadequate for the city's rapidly expanding business and residential areas. As the city's water requirements grew, new dams, reservoirs and tunnels were added to the Croton Reservoir System.

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Croton Falls Dam c. 1910

Second Phase Dam Construction

Following severe droughts of 1880-81, New York City commissioners determined that a new aqueduct system was required and in 1885 work on the New Croton Aqueduct commenced. The system was partially operational by 1890. Between 1837 and 1911, ten additional dams were built on the Croton River so that a sufficient amount of water could be impounded to feed the new aqueduct.

Most of the New Croton Aqueduct system was tunneled through bedrock. It is more than three times the size of the Old Croton Aqueduct and follows a different route. The Old Aqueduct served New York City for a little over a century. It closed in 1955, but still serves the town of Ossining. In 1976, the New York State Legislature pronounced the Old Croton Aqueduct a Scenic and Historic Corridor. Today, it serves as a public park with trails for walking and horseback riding.

The Old Croton Aqueduct was constructed primarily by an immigrant Irish labor force numbering close to four thousand the workers. Salaries ranged from 75 cents to one dollar per day. Discontent at wages and conditions were prevalent and insurrections occurred in 1838 and 1840. Italian immigrant laborers constructed later dams of the 1880s and 1890s. These workers often lived in nearby tent camps or frame house settlements.

Croton Dam

Croton Falls Dam

 A Changing Economic and Physical Landscape

All of this extensive reservoir construction caused flooding of prime farmland. Properties adjacent to the reservoirs were also condemned in order to prevent construction on these lands and thereby protect the purity of the water running into the Croton Water System. Water powered industries were particularly targeted as sources of pollution. The early industrial areas of Southeast and many towns on the Croton River were condemned by the Department of Water Supply.

Churches, stores and homes were either moved or destroyed. In the Town of Southeast alone, two hundred and three buildings were auctioned and moved. Most of Southeast Center, the original center of the Town, was flooded by the East Branch Reservoir. The loss of farmland and the destruction of important industries contributed to a abrupt drop in Southeast's population in the late 1880s.

The Borden Condensery, located in Southeast, was not considered a possible source of water pollution, as it was known to be a scrupulously clean factory.  However, the factory's production was severely reduced as local farms were flooded and the supply of milk diminished.  In 1915, this condensery closed.

Another local industry that was adversely affected by the construction of the Croton Reservoir System, was the Tilly Foster Mine, an important source of magnetic iron ore in the eastern United States. In 1897, the mine flooded and the owners blamed the nearby Middle Branch Reservoir. The courts ordered the reservoir drained but, the flooding continued and ultimately a local underground spring was named the culprit. Consequently, the Tilly Foster Mine closed. Today, the former hamlet of Tilly Foster where the mineworkers had lived, lies under the Middle Branch Reservoir.

Eventually, the recreational aspect of the reservoirs built for the Croton Reservoir System began to be appreciated. Once a year, on the second Saturday of April, Southeast is in the sports pages of many New York newspapers with the announcement of the opening day of trout season. By 6am, the East Branch of the Croton River is usually crowded with hundreds of fishermen.

By 1911, the Croton Water System had achieved its maximum potential. Yet, the needs of New York City's population continued growing. The Esopus Watershed in the Catskills was developed creating a water system of unprecedented magnitude. The Ashokan Reservoir holds 130 billion gallons of water. One hundred and twenty six miles of aqueduct carry water 1,100 feet under the Hudson River to the Kensico Reservoir in Mount Kisco.

Another water system, the Delaware System, includes reservoirs on the Rondout and the Neversink. It is the world's longest aqueduct. Passing under the Hudson River to the West Branch Reservoir in Carmel and then to the Kensico Dam, this system brings 324 billion gallons of water to New York City.

New Aqueducts and Water Systems  

Today, the Croton System supplies less than fifteen percent of New York City's water, but its reservoirs and tunnels also deliver water from the Catskill and Delaware Systems. Yet, even with a 550 billion gallon water system, New York City is not immune to drought. Once again, the city has turned to the Croton System, seeking to improve its output with new construction at the Croton Reservoir.

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The impact of the Croton Reservoir System on Putnam and Westchester communities has been tremendous. In times of drought, when the reservoirs are low, foundations of factories, bridges, farmhouses, and barns can be seen: silent witnesses to uprooted lives and lost villages.

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