Thursday, February 14, 2013

The High Bridge and Tower

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The High Bridge as seen from Manhattan looking toward the Bronx
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The Tower in High Bridge Park
                                On January 11, 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg broke ground for the $61 Million redevelopment project on The High Bridge,  New York's oldest bridge spanning the Harlem River onto Manhattan island.  The project is expected to be completed in the summer of 2014.  The High Bridge was part of the Croton Aqueduct System. Click here to see the groundbreaking ceremony.

The High Bridge is now a steel arch bridge, with a height of almost 140 feet over the Harlem River. The eastern end is located in The Bronx, and the western end is located at High Bridge Park, in Washington Heights near 175th Street.
Although High Bridge has been closed to all traffic since the 1970s, it remains the oldest surviving bridge in New York City although, in fact, much of the current bridge dates from only 1928.

Interior staircase of the High Bridge Water Tower
Originally designed as a stone arch bridge, the High Bridge had the appearance of a Roman aqueduct. Construction on the bridge was started in 1837, and completed in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct, which carried water from the Croton River to supply the  city of New York, which, at that time, was located some 10 miles to the south.  High Bridge has a length of well over 2,000 feet. It was designed by the aqueduct's engineering team, led by John B. Jervis
The Croton Aqueduct had to cross the Harlem River at some point, and the method was a major design decision. A tunnel under the river was considered, but tunneling technology was in its infancy at the time, and the uncertainty of pursuing this option led to this alternative's rejection. Don't forget the problems with building the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge decades later further south on the East River.   A low High Bridge  would have been simpler, faster, and cheaper to construct. When concerns were raised to the New York Legislature that a low bridge would obstruct passage along the Harlem River to the Hudson River, a high bridge was ultimately chosen (see this article for more information on this point).

Installation of the 1860 tube to increase flow.
The water was actually transported atop the structure through two 36 inch diameter cast iron tubes.  In 1860 an additional wrought iron tube of 7 feet, 6 and 1/2 inches in diameter was added above and in between the two original tubes.  The engineer for the enhancement was J. S. Green.  When originally built the High Bridge was an engineering and technological wonder.  It was the first substantially high bridge onto the island, all the previous bridges being, at most, a few feet above the water level.

In 1872 an elaborate reservoir and  tower were completed on the Manhattan side in what is now called Highbridge Park to provide additional pressure for the water system.  It was during this period in the City's history (up to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge), The High Bridge was considered an icon of the City and a destination for all to admire with awe and wonder of the technology of the day.
The High Bridge Tower and Pumping Station about 1880

In 1928, in order to improve navigation in the Harlem River, all of the masonry arches of the central part of the bridge that spanned the river were demolished and replaced with a single steel arch of about 450 feet. Of the masonry arches of the original 1848 bridge, only one survives on the Manhattan side, while ten survive on the Bronx side.
Officials were thinking of closing the bridge in the mid 1950s due to disrepair, then in 1958 a  number of incidents occurred which precipitated the closing of the pedestrian bridge.  Most notable was that some youths threw a rock and other debris from the bridge onto a Circle Line tour boat injuring a number of passengers, and the bridge was closed.  On January 11, 2013 the mayor's office announced the bridge would reopen for pedestrian traffic by 2014. 

Three Harlem River bridges: High Bridge (showing the steel arch that replaced the original masonry spans), nearest; Alexander Hamilton Bridge (part of I-95); and the Washington Bridge, farthest. Washington Heights is left and the Bronx on right)

From the Bronx
The High Bridge was part of the first reliable and plentiful water supply system in New York City. As the City was devastated by cholera (1832) and the Great Fire in 1835, the inadequacy of the water system of wells-and-cisterns became apparent. Numerous corrective measures were examined. In the final analysis only the Croton River, located in northern Westchester County was found to be sufficient in quantity and quality to serve the needs of the City. The delivery system was begun in 1837, and was completed in 1848.
The Old Croton Aqueduct was the first of its kind ever constructed in the United States. The innovative system used a gravity feed, dropping 13 inches  per mile and running 41 miles into New York City through an enclosed masonry structure crossing ridges, valleys, and rivers. University Avenue in The Bronx was later built over the southernmost mainland portion of the aqueduct, leading to the bridge. The High Bridge soars 138 feet above the 620-foot wide Harlem River, with a total length of 1,450 feet. The bridge was designed with a pedestrian walkway atop the Aqueduct and was not used for vehicular traffic. Though the carrying capacity was enlarged in 1861-62 with a larger tube, the bridge, obsolete due to opening of the New Croton Aqueduct, ceased to carry water in 1917. In the 1920s the bridge's masonry arches were declared a hazard to ship navigation by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and the City considered demolishing the entire structure. Local organizations called to preserve the historic bridge, and in 1927 five of the original arches across the river were replaced by a single steel span, the remaining arches were retained.

last modified 7/17//13


  1. Sarah from Morningside HeightsMarch 1, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    This is just what the city needs. A new venue for us to explore. It sounds like the perfect addition. I can't wait to stand on the bridge at mid span looking up and down the river without the buzz of vehicular traffic disturbing the experience. I wish it were open already. Will the tower be open for viewing? I hope that it is as successful as the High Line or Central Park. What kind of merchants are lining up to provide services adjacent to the park? Good Luck!

    1. The tower has been open in the summers with guided tours, but with the cutbacks in the Park's Dept. budget, it is not clear what will happen here. With enough public support we can get the city to continue the program.

  2. New York City's Parks Department is planning a day of snow activities in each of the city's five boroughs.

    Sleds will be available to borrow between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday January 4, 2014 at the five locations. There will be snow angel competitions, music and free hot chocolate.

    The locations are Crotona Park in the Bronx, Prospect Park near Ninth Street in Brooklyn, Highbridge Park in Manhattan, Juniper Valley Park in Queens and Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island.

  3. As reported in DNAInfo New York today "A series of colored icicles in Highbridge Park is drawing onlookers and stopping uptowners in their snowy tracks.

    Residents were perplexed by the pink-and-blue frozen waterfall, which dangles from rocks on Dyckman Street between Nagle and 10th avenues."

    Get out and use the park. This is a wonderful time to enjoy it.