Running The Old Croton Aqueduct:
A Personal and Historic Journey

May 24, 2007

photo by Eliza Zazzera Old Croton Aqueduct Trail I grew up in Colorado, but spent most summers of my youth visiting my grandparents at their sprawling home and acreage in Westchester County, New York. There were woods to explore, a lake to swim in, many cousins for companions, and not too much adult supervision -- a kind of heaven for an energetic child. We often visited New York City, where my grandparents also maintained a house and a pediatric practice.

My grandparents passed away long ago. Perhaps because of those summers spent exploring the woods of Westchester, and hunting for frogs and snakes by the shore of the lake, I studied biology, then physics, and took up a career in environmental science. My sense of adventure never waned, and years later when I started running ultras I felt an urge to run from the Westchester house, which has passed to my father, into the City, a run that would take me from a peaceful rural area into the heart of one of the most densely populated places on Earth. The question was: What route? With Dad's house located about 3 miles from the Croton Reservoir, the Old Croton Aqueduct was the obvious and perfect choice: it is a National Historic Landmark, much of its length is preserved as a trail, and the route is extremely direct.

Vent Tower, photo by Eliza Zazzera In the 18th and early 19th Centuries New York City was plagued by devastating fires and epidemics, exacerbated by the lack of an abundant, reliable and clean water supply. To remedy this, the Croton River was dammed in Westchester County, and the brick-and-stone Aqueduct constructed to bring water 41 miles from Croton Reservoir to two reservoirs in center of the City, at the current locations of the Great Lawn of Central Park and the New York Public Library. Water began flowing in the Aqueduct on June 22, 1842.

The northernmost 26 miles of the Aqueduct, through Westchester, has been designated the Old Croton Trailway State Historic Park, which, averaging only 60 feet wide, must be one of the skinniest parks in the world. Still, development has encroached on the Aqueduct and there are many places where one must detour around private property, buildings and highways. The two excellent maps I obtained from the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (FOCA) were all I needed to navigate from the reservoir all they way to downtown NYC.

New Croton Dam The original Croton Dam no longer exists. The New Croton Dam, about three miles downstream, was completed in 1907 in order to increase the size of Croton Reservoir.

I left Dad's house at 5:45 a.m. on May 24 and ran north towards the reservoir. The roads were quiet, the air crisp and clear. I reached the gatehouses marking the approximate location of the old dam after about 30 minutes, and turned southwest to jog the sleepy road along the reservoir.

Another half-hour brought me to the elegant stone structure of the New Croton Dam, and the start of the Croton Aqueduct Trailway. Now it was a pretty straight shot, 38 miles to the New York Public Library. The soft ground and flat grade of the trail made for easy running, and I enjoyed the cool, quiet morning. I love running alone, listening to the birds sing, a breeze in the trees, and the sound of my own breathing. It was very peaceful.

Crotonville photo by Eliza Zazzera Running the aqueduct trail in Westchester is a curious experience -- it often feels very remote yet you are never far from human habitation. You peer into backyards, and frequently dart across roads. Often you are forced to leave the aqueduct itself to navigate around schools, businesses or highways. Once in a while you pop out of the woods and into the center of one of the many towns along the Hudson River: Ossining, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, and finally Yonkers; excellent places to resupply with food and water. Stately stone vent towers still stand at roughly one-mile intervals along the Aqueduct, vivid reminders of what was once considered an engineering marvel. Like the aqueducts of ancient Rome, the Old Croton Aqueduct was driven entirely by gravity; the tunnel drops an imperceptible 13 inches per mile.

Vent Tower in Ossining Aqueduct Bridge, Ossining In Ossining the route crosses the famous Double Arch, two overlapping bridges over the Sing Sing Kill gorge, and where the aqueduct bridge is now a town park. Dad and his friend Janet met me with snacks and drinks. From here, they would meet me about every hour, which made running very efficient.

Ossining is the only town that still uses the Aqueduct for water, elsewhere it houses telecommunications lines. I ran the town streets for a few minutes, and through Nelson Park, then scampered across busy Route 9 and dove back into the lush green shade of the woods.

After a short diversion to a pedestrian bridge over Highway 117, the route passed along the east side of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the burial place of Washington Irving who immortalized this place in his classic tale of the Headless Horseman.

Lyndhurst Castle Overseer's House In charming downtown Tarrytown I was tempted to stop at a cafe for a while, but pressed on. There was a short section of somewhat "urban" running along Route 9, in order to cross over the New York State Thruway. Then, it was back into the woods, and shortly I passed across the lawn of the ostentatious Lyndhurst Castle, once owned by railroad baron Jay Gould. With more than 25 miles still to run, I decided not to stop in for a tour.

I met Dad again in Dobbs Ferry, in front of the fine brick Overseer's House, where Aqueduct caretakers lived. The State Historic Park headquarters are also here, in a temporary trailer while the Overseer's House is being restored by FOCA.

Yonkers Yonkers The miles went by pleasantly as I jogged along the soft, shaded path, with occasional views of the Palisades across the Hudson River. Entering Yonkers, the route became more urban, and there was a lot of garbage and broken glass on the trail. There was some tricky navigation through the downtown area, where the Aqueduct takes a turn towards the east, and then heads south again through Tibbetts Brook Park. The map from FOCA was key to finding the way. When I reached the Westchester County line at Van Cortlandt Park I was excited to be entering New York City. After 30 miles I still felt great.

photo by Eliza Zazzera Van Cortlandt Park After 2 miles through Van Cortlandt Park the rest of the route would be city streets and urban parks, and not a lot of shade. I ran down Goulden Avenue, past Jerome Park Reservoir. Along Aqueduct Avenue the route follows a mall, separated from the street. After hours and many miles of quiet forest footpath it was interesting to run through the hustle and bustle of the city, though I had to be careful at each street crossing. The language on the street here is primarily Spanish, which gives the area a romantic international feel.

I saw less of Dad and Janet once we entered the Bronx; with all the one-way streets and parking difficulties they were having trouble keeping track of me and finding places to meet me. We kept in touch by cell phone.

High Bridge Tower, NYC High Bridge The Aqueduct crosses the Harlem River via High Bridge, the oldest bridge in the city, which once allowed pedestrian access between Manhattan and the Bronx, but has been closed since 1970. Recently, the City committed $60 million to restore and reopen the majestic 1240-foot-long bridge. For now, pedestrians cross farther north, on Washington Bridge.

I arrived at High Bridge Tower (174th Street) shortly after noon, just as Charlotte Fahn of FOCA was concluding a tour of the tower for a local school group. It was a rare opportunity to ascend the 200-foot tower, once one of the tallest structures in the city. Despite my tired legs and a growing urge to finish the run, I climbed the spiral stairs to the top, and was rewarded by outstanding views in every direction. The city was stretched out below me; this city which owes so much of its early growth and health to the Old Croton Aqueduct.

Old Gatehouse on Amsterdam Ave. Amsterdam Avenue turned out to be the most difficult part of the run for me. The hard cement sidewalks were tough on my tired legs, and without much shade it was hot. The Aqueduct ran underneath the street here, and a siphon was used up the long hill between 135th and 119th Streets, which must have been a remarkable feat of engineering at the time. The old gatehouses still exist at both ends of the siphon.

At 85th Street I ran into Central Park. The Great Lawn, now dotted with sunbathing picnickers, was once the site of a reservoir for Croton Aqueduct water. South of the park the streets and sidewalks were absolutely jammed and it was impossible to run. I walked with the flow of pedestrian traffic, feeling rather alien in my running clothes, with my little waist pack and water bottle, covered with sweat and salt, and dirt on my legs from the miles of forest path upstate.

Downtown NYC New York Public Library Nearly 8 hours after walking out Dad's front door, I finally reached the library. I tried to imagine what it must have been like here in the 1840s, standing next to the 24-million gallon reservoir enclosed by 50-foot-high walls and covering two city blocks. When it was built, it was believed that the Aqueduct would supply the city's water needs for centuries, and yet its capacity was overwhelmed in only 50 years, and a new aqueduct was built. The planners and builders of the Old Croton Aqueduct could not have imagined what the area would look like 165 years later. By following the route of this historic structure under my own power, I felt a sense of connection with the past that I simply could not achieve any other way. I am thankful for all the people who have worked to preserve this amazing historic route for posterity.

For more information on the route of the Old Croton Aqueduct, and the Old Croton Trailway State Historic Park, see the FOCA web site at "Water for Gotham", by Gerard T. Koeppel (Princeton University Press), presents a detailed history of the New York City water supply, and construction of the Aqueduct. Some wonderful photos and historical information is located here.

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