The Museum of the City of New York presents To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: the Croton Aqueduct at 175, an aquatic-themed exhibition celebrating the 175th anniversary of the opening of the original Croton Aqueduct system. The Croton Aqueduct brought badly needed fresh, clean water to New Yorkers for the first time and had a profound impact on the growth of the city. Featuring maps, drawings, and other historic artifacts, the exhibition showcases the letters and drawings of Fayette B. Tower, a young engineer who worked on the aqueduct, and reveals newly commissioned photographs by Nathan Kensinger, tracing the aqueduct’s route and revisiting sights that Tower sketched nearly two centuries ago.
On October 14, 1842, New Yorkers lined the streets to watch the largest parade that the young city had ever seen. The occasion celebrated a new sight in New York: burbling fountains spraying clean, fresh water into the late fall air. The unparalleled engineering feat that was the Croton Aqueduct had finally been completed, bringing water from the Croton River through 41 miles of masonry powered solely by gravity. For a city surrounded by brackish, polluted waterways, underserved by public water pumps, prone to fire, and plagued by epidemics of water-borne disease, the fountains pointed to a future when clean water would become an everyday, yet deeply transformative, aspect of city life.
“This exhibition is a refreshing glimpse at the resilience and creativity in problem solving that has defined New York City from its earliest days,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “Nineteenth century New Yorkers faced an existential crisis in the lack of fresh water that often led to devastating fires and rapid spreading of disease. Something needed to be done to save the city, and the solution ended up being the Croton Aqueduct. To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers takes visitors on a journey through this city planning marvel and reminds us all that New Yorkers have always shown an innate ability to meet the monumental challenges that come along with being one of the world’s great urban centers.”
The exhibition is organized into four sections and is designed to show the extent to which the Croton Aqueduct transformed life in New York City.
Section 1: The Want of Fresh Water
An early observer wrote that Manhattan was “subject to one great inconvenience, which is the want of fresh water.” New York’s poor water supply was such a problem that in 1833 the state created a Water Commission to figure out how to bring water to New York City, and in 1835 citizens voted to create an aqueduct to bring water from the Croton River.
Section 2: Building the Aqueduct
Construction began in 1837, led by Chief Engineer John B. Jervis. While under his tutelage, young assistant engineer Fayette B. Tower made drawings of eye-catching spots along the aqueduct line, including the Sing Sing Kill Bridge in what is now Ossining and High Bridge spanning the Harlem River. The show uses his drawings to represent the work that went into building the aqueduct and pairs his works with contemporary photographs of the same locations, commissioned for this exhibition and captured by Nathan Kensinger.
Section 3: Abundant Water!
The Aqueduct opened on October 14, 1842 with abundant fanfare and the longest parade the city had ever seen. The aqueduct could supply at least 42 million gallons of water a day, as one observer noted, “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!” Even so, over the following decades water usage increased with the introduction of indoor plumbing and sewers, straining the system to the point where the city opened an entirely new Croton Aqueduct to carry even more water in 1890. This addition was eventually followed by the Catskills Aqueduct, built between 1907 and 1917, and the Delaware Aqueduct, built between 1937 and 1965. Currently, the Catskill/Delaware systems supply about 90 percent of New York City's water, but the Croton system continues to supply the remaining 10 percent.
Section 4: Croton Aqueduct in Art
The aqueduct gave the city some of its first iconic architectural achievements, including: the High Bridge, the city’s first bridge, built 35 years before the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883; two Manhattan reservoirs, one in what is now Central Park and the other on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue; and the city’s first public fountains in City Hall Park, Bowling Green, and Union Square. Artists from 19th century printmakers to artists from the Ashcan School have depicted Croton-inspired scenes from the celebratory parade to the public fountains to the reservoir in Central Park, all of which are presented in the exhibition, which features works by Nathaniel Currier, Samuel Halpert, and Hayley Lever.
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