|High Bridge in 1900 with the High Bridge Watchtower in the background - NYPL Collection|
In November of that year Colonel DeWitt Clinton suggested that fresh water be brought into the city from the Croton River in Westchester. The State Legislature quickly established a temporary Croton Water Commission in 1833 to scrutinize the logistics of the plan.
A major point of consideration was the Harlem River which cut a deep trough across the route of the proposed pipeline. Civil engineer David Bates Douglass recommended an “Aqueduct Bridge, 1,188 feet long consisting of nine plain semicircular arches.” It would rise 126 feet above the water line. He envisioned a bridge that would “lend to New York some of the grandeur of imperial Rome.”
The Commission, now permanent, ordered separate surveys to be done by Douglass and another engineer John Martineau. Martineau recommended a “low bridge” using an inverted siphon system which would cost an estimated $426,027 as opposed to the high bridge at $935,745. Douglass stood firm in his preference for the monumental high bridge and, in 1836, he was replaced as Chief Engineer by John B. Jervis.
Although the Commissioners and the Chief Engineer remained in favor of the low bridge, the citizens of New York wanted the more colossal, Roman-looking aqueduct. It was argued that because the aqueduct would be the most impressive public work project of its time, only a monumental aqueduct was suitable. Finally in 1839 the State Legislature broke the stalemate by handing down an ultimatum: the Commission would either construct a tunnel under the river or built the high bridge. The bridge won. Around this time the proposed bridge, officially known as the Harlem River Bridge, began being called the High Bridge in the press and sundry reports.
Fledgling architect James Renwick Jr. who would go on to design, among other notable structures, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, worked on the project. Construction began in 1837, the system using the time-tested gravity feed process which dropped 13 inches per mile to keep the water flowing.
|Stereopticon view of Victorian ladies strolling in front of the High Bridge in 1880|
Not completed until 1848 and costing just under $1 million, the Roman-inspired structure was instrumental in furnishing clear, fresh water to New Yorkers and initiating celebrations city-wide. It measured 1,450 feet in length, with 15 masonry arches – the eight standing in the river with 114 feet clearance above the water line were 80 feet wide, the seven on land were 50 feet wide.
Within only two years, however, it was evident that the two 3-foot diameter pipes were insufficient to keep the city adequately supplied. Therefore in 1860 a third pipe, 90.5” in diameter, was laid over the original two pipes and the sides of the bridge were raised another six feet.
|1849 water color by Fanny Palmer, executied just after the High Bridge's completion|
|Jules Vallee Guerin's "High Bridge" 1905|
By 1923, with the bridge in imminent danger, citizen groups as well as arts and engineering factions nationwide rallied against the proposed destruction. Scientific American magazine derided the plan as “an act of vandalism without precedent in the history of our country.”
|The 1927 steel-girder replacement of five stone arches to accomodate river traffic.|
By the late 1950s, the area around the High Bridge had become neglected and the bridge itself used by vandals and delinquents. Michael Farmer, a 15-year old polio-crippled boy, was slain in the adjoining park on July 30, 1957. On April 21 of the following year, a gang of teens tossed sticks, bricks and rocks from the bridge onto a Circle Line excursion boat, injuring four passengers and a little over a week later a 13-year old girl was beaten by three youths on the bridge. In reaction the High Bridge was closed to pedestrian use.
In 2009 funding began for restoration of the High Bridge which would bring back pedestrian and bicycle access. Lichtenstein Consulting Engineers and Chu & Gassman Consulting Engineers were commissioned in early 2010 to provide proposals for the restoration.