Running The Old Croton Aqueduct:
A Personal and Historic Journey
May 24, 2007
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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