The High Bridge is indeed pretty high.
It soars 138 feet above the Harlem River, with a length of 1,450 feet. But how often have you seen a low bridge? Really? Perhaps the bridge skipped across by the three billy goats gruff.
Or the Bow Bridge enjoyed by rowers in Central Park.
In any case, when this High Bridge first went up over the Harlem River in 1848 it duplicated nothing. It was a blast of the new.
Remnants of that time exist when you walk its length between the Bronx and Manhattan today.
Small details, relics of an earlier time. An original gate house.
A decorative detail. A doodad, if you want to get technical.
The High Bridge, an engineering marvel, brought the miracle of fresh drinking water by gravity from upstate New York to New York City in the form of the Old Croton Aqueduct, with a source that originated 41miles north in Westchester County.
It took an incredibly brief five years to construct the Aqueduct, which was largely the painstaking work of expert stonemasons specifically brought over to the U.S. from Southern Italy.
Fear of disease, especially cholera, drove city planners to import pure water. When it gushed forth in the island’s first decorative fountain in City Hall Park on October 14, 1842, the people celebrated.
“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” read the article in The New York Times.
Author Lydia Maria Child exclaimed: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!” It even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step.”
The new High Bridge, designed by John B. Jervis, had 15 Roman-style masonry arches. When completed, it was the longest bridge in America.
Earlier, the site had been farmland, owned by such settlers as the Morris family, remaining undeveloped until bought by New York City in order to install the bridge. It is the city’s oldest.
The bridge itself immediately proved a destination for strollers.
Much like the Reservoir at 42nd street, also fed by the Old Croton Aqueduct – now occupied by the Research Library and Bryant Park – where the uppertens liked to promenade.
You can still see a chunk of the Reservoir’s granite if you search it out in the Library’s substrata.
For a century, the High Bridge existed as a tourist attraction. In 1899, Jesse Lynch Williams of Scribner’s Magazine wrote: “There is a different feeling in the air up along this best-known end of the city’s water-front. The small, unimportant looking winding river, long distance views, wooded hills, green terraces, and even the great solid masonry of High Bridge…help to make you feel the spirit of freedom and outdoors and relaxation. This is the tired city’s playground.” Restaurants and beer gardens sprang up on both banks.
In 1927, the architecture of the bridge changed, when engineers replaced five of its arches with a single steel span that would allow larger vessels to use the waterway.
A few decades after the bridge went up, a hexagonal water tower was constructed as the city expanded northwards and the Aqueduct’s gravity-based system proved not strong enough to deliver water to the higher elevations, especially as flush toilets came into use. The tower contained a 47,000-gallon iron tank. One contemporary critic has called it “more picturesque than beautiful.” Okay, if you say so. It still stands proud over Washington Heights, though its reservoir has been reduced to a swimming pool.
I want to take you higher: Sly and the Family Stone. If you’re feeling blue, this is not the place to go to resolve your life by suicide. A preventive fence takes the High Bridge even higher.
At the Washington Heights terminus, a chunk of rock finds itself displayed.
Is it Manhattan schist or is it Manhattan gneiss? Does it matter? One is schist as gneiss as the other, has Gil likes to remind me.
When you walk the neighborhood streets you can see how the rock was blasted away to make for sidewalks.
Water flow to the city via the Aqueduct ceased in 1958. The bridge closed in 1970, partly due to incidents of pedestrians throwing over sticks, stones and bricks that seriously injured passengers on Circle Line tour boats making their way up the river. Highways came to dominate the old majestic view. In 1972 the bridge and water tower went on the National Register of Historic Places, but the site continued to atrophy.
Restored in the past decade at a cost of 61 million dollars – it originally cost 950,000 to build – the High Bridge has been a park since 1937 and is now managed by the NYC Parks Department.
Landscaped areas on either side of the bridge afford the customary parks accoutrements, places for chess or checkers, depending on your skill level.
The neighborhood, its once-bucolic nature hard to fathom today, still sports some distinctions.
Plenty of yucca.
If you need some Bronx-style sustenance at the eastern end of your High Bridge promenade.