Thus said my parents when asked why they decided to live in Hastings-in-Hudson rather than other villages in Westchester. It was more diverse, they explained. In those days they meant that Irish people and Italians lived here.
There was a reason for that. Laborers from those countries had come over long ago, in the nineteenth century, to break their backs building the Old Croton Aqueduct, which brought gallon upon gallon of potable water to a New York City plagued by dysentery and prone to conflagrations like the ones that repeatedly destroyed blocks of the town.
Today, we stroll on a spring day along the path that follows the early trail.
It’s a short walk from Hastings to Dobbs Ferry, and spring shows mainly in these little flowers, sometimes called fig buttercup, or fig-root buttercup, or figwort, or pilewort. What they have to do with figs or piles I do not know.
Back in the 1840s, when the tunnel was built to carry water from the pure Croton River down to the City, it was designed as a horseshoe-shaped brick tunnel 8.5 feet high by 7.5 feet wide, set on a stone foundation and protected with an earthen cover and stone facing at embankment walls. Designed on principles dating from Roman times, the gravity-fed tube, dropping gently 13 inches per mile, challenged its builders to maintain this steady gradient through a varied terrain. A large stock of workers from Ireland and Italy had come to America to do this work.
The water passed through a receiving tank, the Croton Reservoir, completed in 1842. Along the reservoir’s stately, Egyptian-style parapets, the fashionables of the day liked to promenade. An ice cream stand across the street quenched the appetites that came with such exertions. Next to the Reservoir stood the Crystal Palace, hailed by Walt Whitman as “Earth’s modern wonder.” It showcased such revolutionary marvels as Singer’s Sewing Machine. Soon it would burn to the ground.
When the much-anticipated water finally came through and bubbled out of a fountain in downtown New York, it was cause for a full-out celebration.
It’s can be hard to imagine this hoopla over the water we take for granted today, but if you are in New York you can see remnants of the old Reservoir walls, under the New York Public Library, which stands where it was torn down. Go down to the lower level of the South Court and there it is. Mull over it a while. Some smart person knew that we needed to retain this secret history.
In Dobbs Ferry you come across something rather incredible: An overseer’s house, the only one of these houses that survives in its original location. Classic, brick Italianate-designed yet humble, it stands guard at Walnut Street, having survived since 1857, when it hosted James Bremner, the principal superintendent of the Aqueduct, north of New York City. It’s called the Keeper’s House.
We may not have the parapets but we take our own refreshment, at Basilio’s, when we jump off the trail in Dobbs. Basilion doles out dry wit with a fine cup of cappuccino.
On the return, a stop specifically to see one of these towers that poke up from the Aqueduct trail occasionally. Their purpose was technical and I am too lazy to look up and see what it was.
If anyone would like to write me with an explanation, please do. In the meantime teenagers have left handprinted stones along its ledge. If you can explain those, please do as well.
There is something about its very uniformity that makes the Aqueduct so mesmerizing, so appealing. You walk for miles and don’t know quite where you are. One thing that is always next to you, the mighty Hudson running parallel to the trail, down the hill.
It was here over a century ago when those laborers made it possible for clean water to get to New York City. Heroes.