In selecting the waterways featured in my book, the question on reservoirs determined how much of the city would be covered in the book and the size of the book. Over the centuries, the city’s thirst was quenched by reservoirs placed on high location from which gravity took the flow to homes and businesses. Some reservoirs were given naturalistic appearances, such as the one in Central Park. Silver Lake on Staten Island was transformed into a reservoir; Mount Prospect Reservoir was eliminated after becoming obsolete. But only one former reservoir in the city was transformed into a public swimming pool: the one in High Bridge Park.
As upper Manhattan does not have as many historical streams as its middle and downtown parts, a chapter on Highbridge Reservoir puts the neighborhood of Washington Heights on the Hidden Waters map.
Where it is
To compare how much the neighborhood has changed, above is a 1910 photo of Highbridge Reservoir looking west towards the Hudson River and the Palisades. Prior to the arrival of the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, the corner of 168th Street and Broadway hosted the New York Yankees baseball team at Hilltop Park.
Situated on a bluff overlooking the reservoir was in operation between 1863 and 1917. It was named after High Bridge, the multi-arched pedestrian crossing that carried the Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River. Completed in 1848, its designer, civil engineer John B. Jervis paid homage to Roman aqueducts in the appearance and function of the bridge. The pipe carrying the aqueduct was 120 feet above sea level and capably served any structure in Manhattan below that height using the force of gravity. As the rural estates, farms, and institutions of uptown gave way to more dense development, its water needs also grew.
In 1863, the state legislature authorized the creation of High Bridge Reservoir and pumping station that diverted some of the water from the aqueduct to serve upper Manhattan properties that were located at higher altitudes. In total, the 324 square foot pool held 10 million gallons of water.
On the reservoir’s eastern side, the High Bridge Water Tower rose to 125 feet with pipes inside running towards a tank at the top of the tower. The structure was built in 1872 to provide water pressure to high elevation locations in upper Manhattan. Its water tank was hidden inside its roof and functioned until 1949. Since then, a bell was installed inside the tower and it is open periodically for guided tours. The reservoir became obsolete in 1917 but remained in control of the city’s Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity as a backup site for water emergencies. In 1934, High Bridge Reservoir was transferred to the Parks Department along with Williamsbridge Reservoir in the Bronx.
Using funds and labor provided by the Works Progress Administration, Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center was completed within two years on the site of the reservoir. The pool has the capacity to fit 4,800 people, ideal for a hot summer’s day.
Traces of the Reservoir?
As a Parks employee, I have access to the tunnel beneath the pool that has its entrance on Amsterdam Avenue and W. 174th Street, but as this area is not public, I’ll tease you with this image of its open doors.
The stonework around the doorway contrasts with the brick architecture of the pool and recreation center above that replaced the reservoir. Could this doorway and retaining wall be a remnant of the High Bridge Reservoir?
I do not want to see my readers getting arrested on account of curiosity so let’s say that this tunnel leads to the boiler room.
After it ceased functioning as the city’s water conduit, High Bridge continued to serve the public as a pedestrian bridge with panoramic views of the city’s skyline. It closed to the public in the 1970s after numerous incidents involving youths throwing rocks at motorists and boats below. In the summer of 2012, the city commenced a $62 million restoration project on the bridge. The work reopened in the summer of 2015. From the top of the water tower, one can see as far as Long Island, with all of the Bronx in view.
In the News: my book was reviewed this week by the Gotham Center for New York City History.