What is now known as New York City had a water problem in the 19th century. Its burgeoning population required copious amounts of it for industry, cleaning, drinking, and bathing. But that same population was rapidly polluting the freshwater rivers which ran through the city and its harbor was an undrinkable mix of fresh and ocean saltwater. So it was that, between 1837 and 1841, New York assembled some of the nation’s foremost engineering minds to construct the Croton Aqueduct to carry clean, fresh water 41 miles south from the Croton River in Westchester County. The last geographic hurdle over which they had to leap was the question of crossing the Harlem River to get the aqueduct directly onto Manhattan Island. Tunneling technology at the time was dangerously unrefined, leading to the decision to construct a bridge – a “high” bridge – across a narrow portion of the Harlem River between Manhattan and The Bronx that would be tall enough to allow boat traffic to flow unimpeded.
Spanning more than 2,000 feet and standing more than 100 feet above the river’s surface, the bridge was completed in 1848. At its Manhattan end, a reservoir was constructed to supply fresh water to the then-small population of upper Manhattan, which consisted mainly of stately country homes and ramshackle farming villages. In 1872, a rather ornate water tower was constructed next to the reservoir to provide the pressure necessary to pump water from the reservoir throughout Washington Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods.
This postcard, printed by the Detroit Printing Company some time just after 1900, shows the High Bridge at about 60 years old, still with its original design intact. The 1872 water tower stands proudly on the Manhattan side of the span. In 1928, citing navigational difficulties along the Harlem River, the central portion of the bridge was demolished and replaced by a single steel arch. By 1934, the reservoir and water tower had fallen into antiquation and disuse, and they were absorbed by the Parks Department. The reservoir was renovated and converted into a public swimming pool, and the surrounding open land became Highbridge Park.
But by the 1970s and 80s, the park and its surrounding neighborhood had fallen onto hard times. The High Bridge, once a serene promenade for Uptown’s refined society, had become a dangerous breeding ground for crime. In 1984, arsonists set the wooden cupola of the water tower ablaze, causing it to collapse in on itself. It wasn’t repaired until a fundraising drive was successfully completed in 1990. But the bridge continued to sit, virtually untouched, with huge steel doors and barbed wire deterring anyone from crossing its dramatic span. Luckily, fortunes are beginning to turn around for Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and their shared bridge. At long last, scaffolding surrounds the central span as it is rehabilitated to once again welcome pedestrian and bicycle traffic. 165 years after its completion, the High Bridge remains a proud and impressive landmark.