NYC’s first major water supply came from a aqueduct tunnel that was abandoned in 1955
In the early 1800s, NYC was dependent on well water – which was rapidly becoming polluted. Unsanitary conditions lead to the spread of diseases which claimed the lives of 1 in 39 residents. This problem was addressed with the construction of a long gravity-powered underground Aqueduct. Built between 1837 and 1842, the ‘Old Croton’ Aqueduct is a brick lined tunnel that begins at the Croton Dam, 41 miles north of NYC. It slowly descended into the city – through the Bronx and into Manhattan where it ended at a reservoir located between 42nd and 40th streets, from 5th to 6th avenues. This land later became Bryant Park and NYC’s main public library.
Today, the tunnel is split into sections. The northernmost end of the Aqueduct is in use to supply water to the town of Ossining. A large section through the Bronx is completely abandoned, and separated from the Manhattan section near High Bridge – were the tunnel is walled off. The Manhattan section runs from High Bridge (where the aqueduct crosses under the pedestrian path in a large, now rusted out iron pipe) to an undetermined dead end, located under a manhole on a busy street. Walking the length of this tunnel entailed a two hour trip in complete darkness. One portion entails wading through waist deep water.
While many have explored the Bronx and Westchester sections of the ‘Old Croton’, a very small handful of our associates have explored the Manhattan side of this tunnel. In 2003 I became the only photographer use the Manhattan section of tunnel for a photoshoot. We’ll touch on that in a minute…
Access to the Manhattan section of the Aqueduct was finally sealed around 2008, during the NYC Parks Department’s construction preparation for the reopening of High Bridge (which was closed in the 1960s).
As a result of being sealed, so far as we know, no one has visited or inspected this tunnel since 2008.
One of the former entry points. We would chimney climb down to the pile of rubbish and into the very small tube leading into the tunnel – barely visible at the bottom of this pit.
The pitch black aqueduct, facing south. Most of the tunnel features a brick lined arch ceiling, with only a few sections with exposed bedrock above.
This small alcove was decorated with a small set of porcelain prayer hands (in the nook to the right) by persons unknown, at a date unknown.
Some really old stupid graffiti. Despite being a prime abandoned tunnel, the hidden nature of the aqueduct protected it from becoming a destination for graffiti artists.
Under the stone arch section of High Bridge, above the Bronx.
Leftover inflatable shark from a ‘Dark Passage’ underground party.
High Bridge in 2008 – this large iron wall prevented most people from accessing the bridge and walking to the Bronx.
The city government filled the old point of entry with concrete, later placing a large boulder on the pad, as if to send a message to future explorers.
One of my favorite shots from the 2003 photoshoot. The photos were later tacked to third rail insulators and displayed at a williamsburg gallery. Each insulator had 4×6 photos of couples in the underground.
Perhaps some day the NYC government will collectively take a ‘fun pill’ and realize the potential of this abandoned, hidden space. Quite a bit of money could be made giving tours of it, for example, and the full story of the Aqueduct is ripe for educational opportunities and scientific research. Perhaps some day this unique disused infrastructure will be seen for what it is: a super interesting space that should never be forgotten.