New Croton Dam Construction, circa 1902

Mr. John Fish at the New Croton Dam, circa 1902

Mr. John Fish at the New Croton Dam, circa 1902

We recently acquired a great set of photographs showing the New Croton Dam under construction. The images are particularly exciting because they include some rare views of the construction site and one of the soon-to-be submerged Old Croton Dam. Based on the state of completion of the dam we think these were taken circa 1902.1

The images appear to document a visit to the site by “Mr. John Fish,” who can be seen in several photographs. Who was Mr. Fish and why was his visit photographed? Why were the photos laboriously labelled on the negatives when a simple inscription on the back of the print or on a scrapbook page would have sufficed?2

We don’t know. We speculate that Fish may have been involved in the construction as a subcontractor but so far a search of online and offline sources has turned up nothing. If you have any information please send us an email.

The scanned images below have been adjusted in Photoshop to increase contrast and bring out details. The actual prints are lighter, either due to age, overexposure when the photos were taken or printed—or both. We have cropped and enlarged sections of the images to bring out glorious details.

Click the first photo to enlarge it and then click the arrow icons to cycle through the images.


  1. Many thanks to Tom Tarnowsky, Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, and Carl Oechsner, Croton Friends of History, for their help in analyzing these photographs. ↩︎
  2. The text labels in the photos were added to the negatives in the darkroom so they would appear on every print. To be readable when the images were printed the labels needed to be written or applied in reverse—a tricky thing to do in a darkroom—which is why some of the letters are incorrectly reversed on the prints. Because the text labels in several of the photos are cut off it appears these prints were trimmed down, though it could also have been a mistake when the images were printed. None of the prints have inscriptions on the back and the seller was unable to provide any additional information. ↩︎

A Croton River Disaster—197 Years Ago Today

Detail from a map of Cortlandt Manor in 1797 showing (A) the mill complex, (B) Van Cortlandt Manor and the Ferry House, (C) Bethel Chapel and the Quaker Meeting House, (D) docks on the Hudson River and (E) the location where Quaker Bridge is today. Since there is no line across the river indicating a bridge it is likely the bridge had been washed away by a freshet at the time this map was made.

Detail from a map of Cortlandt Manor in 1797 showing (A) the mill complex, (B) Van Cortlandt Manor and the Ferry House, (C) Bethel Chapel and the Quaker Meeting House, (D) docks on the Hudson River and (E) the location where Quaker Bridge is today. Since there is no line across the river indicating a bridge it is likely
the bridge had been washed away by a freshet at the time this map was made.

As the weather in Croton gets warmer and we rejoice that the snow and ice are finally melting, let’s look back to a time when the Croton River ran wild and spring thaws would often bring massive freshets—river floods caused by heavy rain and/or melted snow and ice.

On Tuesday, March 10, 1818—exactly 197 years ago today—the Westchester Herald published a story about a freshet and the great damage it caused to “two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt.” 1

“Croton River.—The rapid thaw on Saturday . . . and the succeeding day, attended with heavy rain, occasioned the Croton river to rise to a considerable height, and floated down ponderous shoals of ice. Among the disasters it has occasioned we have to regret the damage done to the two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt, situated on that river. One of them was removed some feet from its base, the water-wheel destroyed, and some hundreds of barrels stove in; the floor of the second story was carried away, and upwards of one thousand bushels of feed destroyed. A saw-mill on the same race way was also swept away. The other mill, we are happy to learn, received but little damage. The whole loss is estimated at upwards of $3,000.”

Although the article is short it gives us a wealth of information about the flour mills on the lower Croton River.

  • There were two separate mills operating on the lower Croton River in 1818. As shown in the map above, they were both on the south side of the river.
  • The “race” that diverted water from the Croton River also powered a sawmill.
  • The mills are called “merchant mills” because they were large commercial operations that purchased unprocessed wheat from farmers and sold the flour themselves or through agents. 2
  • We get a sense of the size of the operation from the description of the damage—hundreds of barrels crushed, a thousand bushels of feed destroyed—and the estimated cost, roughly $55,000 in today’s dollars.
Philip Van Cortlandt (1749-1831) by John Ramage. Watercolor on ivory, circa 1783. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.

Philip Van Cortlandt (1749-1831) by John Ramage. Watercolor on ivory, circa 1783. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library.

The mills were then owned and operated by Philip Van Cortlandt, (who was often referred to as “General Van Cortlandt” due to his rank at the end of the Revolutionary War) but they had been built by the Underhills in 1792 and operated by them until their lease with the Van Cortlandt’s ended acrimoniously in 1813.

It’s unlikely this was the first freshet to damage the mill complex and it was certainly not the last. Indeed, the Great Freshet of 1841—which caused the partial collapse of the earthen embankment of the old Croton Dam—destroyed the Van Cortlandt mills, along with all the bridges and buildings on the banks of the lower Croton River.3

What’s remarkable is that the water power produced at the site was so valuable that despite the continued destruction something was always rebuilt there. The site was used for more than 80 years and by the 1840s iron had replaced wheat as the material processed at the location.

Remains of the mill complex on the Croton River. Photo courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Remains of the mill complex on the Croton River. Photo courtesy of Carl Oechsner.

Iron bolt in a boulder at the edge of the river.

Iron bolt in a boulder at the edge of the river.

Sadly, little remains of the mill complex remain today. If you paddle up the river—and you should—when you get near Fireman’s Island you’ll see a graceful brick archway, marking the end of the long race. Drilled into a boulder at the edge of the river there’s a large iron bolt where boats tied up. On the shore you can search for chunks of slag metal among the leaves, explore what’s left of the mill building foundation, walk along the top of the overgrown wall of the race and imagine what the mills must have been like in their heyday.

Multistory mill buildings towering over the river, the constant sound of millstones grinding together, the creaking waterwheels, hammering sounds of barrels of flour being sealed, then the clattering of heavy barrels being rolled on planks into the hold of a waiting ship.

One hundred ninety seven years ago today the sounds would have been very different, as a huge flood of water and “ponderous shoals of ice”—high enough and powerful enough to move a two-story building off its foundation—swept down the Croton River to the Hudson.


  1. The Westchester Herald began publishing in Sing Sing in Feburary, 1818—one month before this article was published—and continued to 1829.
  2. For more information on merchant mills see this article.
  3. At that time the mills were in a state of disrepair and were not in use.

John Quincy Adams Sends His Regrets

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

On October 11, 1842 former President John Quincy Adams realized he had neglected to respond—several times—to an invitation to be an honored guest at the Croton Water Celebration. In his diary he wrote,

“. . . on turning over my letters recently received, to endorse and file them, I found one which I had totally forgotten, from . . . New York . . . inviting me to a festival to be held on the 14th of this month, in celebration of the introduction of the Croton water into the city. There was on the note a twice-repeated request for an answer, which I had overlooked till now. I answered the letter, declining the invitation, and sent [my reply] . . . so that it may reach New York on Thursday, the day before the feast.”1

Many important dignitaries were invited to the great Croton Water Celebration, but contrary to some books and a number of online sources (including—perhaps not surprisingly—Wikipedia2), former Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, then-President John Tyler, and Governor of New York William H. Seward did not attend. [UPDATE: We have corrected the error on Wikipedia. Depending on whether our changes are accepted the error may or may not still be present.]

It’s difficult to determine how this error crept into the historical record.

The contemporary newspaper accounts of the event exhaustively list every participating fire department, trade organization, temperance society, and civic official but say nothing of the President of the United States, two former Presidents and the Governor of New York. It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that newspapers published within days of the celebration would have missed these historic figures.

A year later Charles King even published the letters of regret from all four men in his book, A memoir of the construction, cost, and capacity of the Croton Aqueduct . . . together with an account of the civic celebration of the fourteenth October, 1842 . . .3

The President of the United States sends his regrets.

The President of the United States sends his regrets.

King has a long section of replies to invitations to the Croton Water Celebration. One of the most interesting appears long after the letters from officials like the Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General of the State of New York; after letters from diplomats like the Counsels of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Greece—even after the letters from the mayors of cities like Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Troy.

Writing from Peekskill on October 8, 1842, Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. replied,

”I have this day received your polite invitation from the Common Council of the city of New York, to join with them on the 14th instant, to celebrate the introduction of the Croton water into the City of New York. With pleasure I accept your invitation, and will be in New York at the time appointed.”4

If anyone at that time had a plausible claim to the water from the Croton River it was Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr. Indeed, the Van Cortlandt family had engaged in extended litigation against the Croton Water Commissioners over the diversion of water.5 Even if he had come to accept New York City’s diversion there was the matter of the Great Freshet of 1841, when part of the Croton Dam gave way. The torrent of water and debris destroyed bridges and businesses, silted out the mouth of the Croton River and is said to have come within 8 feet of destroying Van Cortlandt Manor.6

The Old Croton Dam after reconstruction.

The Old Croton Dam after reconstruction.

Did Van Cortlandt actually attend? What did he really think of the great event? Unfortunately his published correspondence contains just three letters from 1842 and none of them mention the Croton Water Celebration.


  1. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, compiled by Charles Francis Adams. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott & Co., 1876. Volume 11.
  2. The current Wikipedia article for the Croton Aqueduct states “Among those present were then-President of the United States John Tyler, former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, and Governor of New York William H. Seward.” See here.
  3. A memoir of the construction, cost, and capacity of the Croton Aqueduct . . . together with an account of the civic celebration of the fourteenth October, 1842, on occasion of the completion of the great work . . . by Charles King. New York, Printed by C. King, 1843.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Correspondence of the Van Cortlandt Family of Cortlandt Manor, 1815-1848, compiled and edited by Jacob Judd. Volume IV, pages 291-292.
  6. For more on the Great Freshet of 1841 see here.

A Van Cortlandt Manor Treasure—on eBay!

The first page of Cartwright’s notebook.

The first page of Cartwright’s notebook.

For the second time in a month we are pleased to have helped the Westchester County Historical Society acquire an important piece of Croton-related history.

Last month WCHS purchased an 1804 bible owned by Abraham I. Underhill, one of the three Underhill brothers who started the flour mill on the Croton River.

Today the organization purchased something that may prove to be more significant—a 22-page notebook kept by surveyor George W. Cartwright when he conducted a detailed survey of Van Cortlandt Manor in 1837–1838.1

Historic Hudson Valley (the organization which manages Van Cortlandt Manor, Philipsburg Manor, Kykuit and other historic sites) has in its collection a Cartwright survey which we believe was made from these notes. By comparing the notebook and map we may be able to glean new information about the area, which Cartwright called “Van Cortlandt Manor Farm” in the first entry.

Detail of the lower Croton River from Cartwright’s survey map, likely based on his 1837-1838 notebook. Van Cortlandt Manor is in the C-shaped area in the top left. The yellow road running diagonally above it is today South Riverside Avenue.

Detail of the lower Croton River from Cartwright’s survey map, likely based on his 1837–1838 notebook. Van Cortlandt Manor is in the C-shaped area in the top left. The yellow road running diagonally above it is what we know today as South Riverside Avenue.

George W. Cartwright was a civil engineer whose maps and surveys are a treasure-trove of information about the Croton and Ossining area in the early to mid 1800s. Records show that he made a map of the “Villages of Sing Sing and Sparta” as early as 1820. In the 1820s he also surveyed and gauged the entire Croton River and his data—particularly his calculation that twenty million gallons of water a day flowed in the river near Pines Bridge—was later used in planning the Croton Aqueduct.2 The Westchester County Clerk Historical Maps collection has several by Cartwright maps online, including this map showing downtown Sing Sing in 1835.

Pages recording the survey of the creeks in the marsh on Croton Point—now the capped Westchester County dump. Click the image to enlarge it.

Pages recording the survey of the creeks in the marsh on Croton Point—now the capped Westchester County dump. Click the image to enlarge it.

We hope to have additional details about this exciting discovery soon. In the meantime, if you missed our previous posts about the Underhill bible, click the links below.


  1. The notes begin on October 2, 1837 and the last entry is dated October 1, 1838.
  2. See Water for Gotham: A History by Gerard T. Koeppe, page 151.

The Mystery of the Lost High Bridge Watch

Ad from the Troy Daily Times, January 17, 1883.

Ad from the Troy Daily Times, January 17, 1883.

On January 17, 1883 the Troy Daily Times ran an ad for a lost watch that will quicken the heart of anyone fascinated by High Bridge, the covered wooden bridge that once soared above the Croton River.

LOST—A small sized hunting cased, gold English watch. On the upper case is an engraving of High Bridge, Croton river, N.Y. The owner prizes the watch as a family relic, and not for its intrinsic value. The finder will be handsomely rewarded by calling on JOHN E. THOMPSON, Jeweler, &c., Mechanicville, N.Y.

Who would have commissioned an engraved watch depicting High Bridge? As much as we are interested in the bridge it wasn’t unique or famous in its day—certainly not like the other High Bridge, the one that carried the Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River. Opened in June, 1842, our High Bridge lasted just 37 years—collapsing into the river from neglect in October, 1879. 1

Why was the watch a prized “family relic”?

And why was the ad—which apparently ran in no other newspaper—published so far up the Hudson River in Troy, New York?

Wooden Tubular Bridge Over Croton River, published by the London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Wooden Tubular Bridge Over Croton River, published by the London Stereoscopic Company.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A tantalizing clue may be found in an article, “Croton Bridge Meeting,” published in the Sing Sing newspaper Hudson River Chronicle on October 26, 1841. Earlier that year what we now call the Old Croton Dam had collapsed, sending a deluge of water and debris down the Croton River Valley. When it roared through the gorge near Quaker Bridge the torrent was said to be 50 feet high and it destroyed all the bridges from Pines Bridge to the Hudson River.2

By the end of the year the towns of Cortlandt, Newcastle and Mount Pleasant were making plans to build a new bridge on the lower Croton. The Chronicle reported that it would be built “upon the point . . . known as ‘the Deep Hole,’ ” which “from its height above the River” would be “the most secure from destruction by the risings of the River, or any outbreakings of the Dam above.”

At a meeting on October 22, in the Ferry House at Van Cortlandt Manor, interested citizens and representatives of the three towns met to discuss plans to build the access roads on each side of the river and the bridge itself, “a Lattice Bridge (after the manner of the Harlem Rail Road Bridge).” The cost of this wooden bridge would be $16 per foot (not including a roof) and the contractor selected was “Mr. Joseph Haywood, Architect, of Troy.”

A postcard of the Van Cortlandt Manor Ferry House, circa 1907.

A postcard of the Van Cortlandt Manor Ferry House, circa 1907.

Before we speculate that the watch may have belonged to Haywood we need to correct some of the errors in the article to learn more about the man responsible for our beloved bridge.

“Mr. Joseph Haywood” was actually “Mr. Joseph Hayward” and he wasn’t really an architect, but more of a builder or construction supervisor. The “Lattice Bridge” he was proposing was not “after the manner of the Harlem Rail Road Bridge,” but based on his experience building a far more important bridge—the first railroad bridge across the Hudson River, which he had helped build in 1834–1835 at Troy.

The location of High Bridge on a map published in 1868. Click the image to enlarge it.

The location of High Bridge on a map published in 1868. Click the image to enlarge it.

In his recently published book, Crossing the Hudson, Donald E. Wolf writes that the wooden Troy bridge “marked a change in the course of history in the Hudson Valley. The Age of Steam had arrived, bringing with it the power for industry in the valley, speed and reliability for vessels on the river, and railroad connections to the rest of the country. The bridge at Troy was the first to carry a steam railroad across the Hudson, and as such it was the agent of historical change.”3

Unfortunately, despite Hayward’s association with such an important project, research to date has turned up little information about him. The fact that he was from Troy may answer the question of who originally owned the lost watch, but assuming it was his there are other mysteries. Why did he have a picture of High Bridge engraved on a watch? Was it significant because it was his first independent bridge construction contract—or was it particularly challenging to construct? Was the watch a gift from the grateful citizens of the three towns which paid for its construction? Does the fact that the ad says the watch was a family relic mean that Hayward had given it to a loved one?

There’s one last question. Did anyone ever find the lost High Bridge watch?


  1. As early as the late 1850s, in his classic book The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, author Benson Lossing described High Bridge as “a wooden, rickety structure, destined soon to fall in disuse and absolute decay”. Read the section about the Croton area here.
  2. See the article The Great Freshet of 1841, the Day that Changed the Croton River Forever on the Croton Friends of History website.
  3. Crossing the Hudson: Historic Bridges and Tunnels of the River by Donald E. Wolf. Haywood’s involvement in the bridge is also mentioned in Covered Bridges of the Northeast by Richard Sanders Allen. Both books are available through the Westchester library system.

The Greatest Jubilee That New York . . . Has Ever Boasted

The front page of the Dollar Weekly, October 22, 1842. Click image to enlarge.

The front page of the Dollar Weekly, October 22, 1842. Click image to enlarge.

This month is the 171st anniversary of the “greatest jubilee that New York or America has ever boasted—a jubilee in commemoration of the greatest blessing that a city like New York could receive—the introduction of an abundant supply of pure and wholesome water.” 1

The jubilee took place on October 14, 1842 and the quote is from the coverage a week later in the October 22 issue of the Dollar Weekly, a short-lived newspaper that the publishers, Herrick & Ropes, modestly proclaimed was “The cheapest paper ever published! The miracle of the age! One dollar a year, with two hundred original engravings!”

In a way they were right to call their paper “the miracle of the age” because they published the kind of engravings that made Harper’s Weekly famous when it was started fifteen year later. The highlight of this issue is the 16-inch wide engraving across the front page that illustrates the “great procession celebrating the introduction of the Croton water into the city of New York.” Photography was not in widespread use in 1842 so there are very few images depicting the jubilee parade and none of them are quite like this wonderful panorama.

If they left us nothing else, we could remember Herrick & Ropes as innovative publishers who paved the way for the great illustrated weekly newspapers. But at the same time they were publishing two other papers—another weekly, The Atlas, and a daily paper, The Aurora. On March 28, 1842 Herrick & Ropes announced in the Aurora that they had “secured the services” of a “bold, energetic and original writer as their leading editor” who would “carry out their original design of establishing a sound, fearless and independent daily paper.” His name was Walter Whitman, but we know him today as the poet, Walt Whitman. 2

Click the images below to see all the Aqueduct-related images published in the October 22 issue.


  1. Dollar Weekly, October 22, 1842.
  2. Whitman’s relationship with the publishers did not end well. By May 1842 he was no longer associated with the paper, which referred to him as “the laziest fellow who ever undertook to edit a city paper.” That summer Whitman used his new position at a different newspaper to exact revenge. “There is in this city,” he wrote, “a trashy, scurrilous, and obscene daily paper, under the charge of two dirty fellows, as ever were able by the force of brass, ignorance of their own ignorance, and a coarse manner of familiarity, to push themselves among gentlemen.” For more see Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds.

Bird’s Eye Views of the Croton Aqueduct, 1879-1887

Here are two priceless “bird’s eye” views of the Croton Aqueduct, made eight years apart during the period when New York City was rapidly outgrowing the capacity of what we now call the Old Croton Aqueduct. One map looks north, showing the burgeoning metropolis in 1879—straining the water supply system with its unrelenting growth. The other looks south—to the future—showing both the path of the New Croton Aqueduct tunnel and the then-planned location (later abandoned) of “the most massive structure of its kind in the world,” the Quaker Bridge Dam.

The City of New York. Will L. Taylor, chief draughtsman. New York, Galt & Hoy, 1879. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

The City of New York. Will L. Taylor, chief draughtsman. New York, Galt & Hoy, 1879.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

Taylor’s 1879 New York City Map

In a fascinating article about three-dimensional maps of New York City, the website Codex 99 calls this map “the first true attempt at a perspective map of the city . . . [The] four-sheet engraving, published by Galt & Hoy, attempted to label all roads and piers and depict buildings to (at least a more appropriate) scale using a vanishing perspective. It was a stunning achievement for the time.” 1 The map is so detailed that it shows all three major components of the Old Croton Aqueduct in New York City:

  • High Bridge and the High Bridge Water Tower
  • The Receiving Reservoir in Central Park
  • The Distributing Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now the site of the New York Public Library

High Bridge and the High Bridge Water Tower. Click to enlarge.

High Bridge and the High Bridge Water Tower. Click to enlarge.


The Receiving Reservoir in Central Park. Click to enlarge.

The Receiving Reservoir in Central Park. Click to enlarge.


The Distributing Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Click to enlarge.

The Distributing Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Click to enlarge.

Scientific American, 1887

The cover of the June 4, 1887 issue of Scientific American featured a bird’s eye view map looking south, from the Putnam County border to New York City and beyond. The accompanying article said the map “clearly presents the course of the Croton River, the location of Muscoot, Croton, and the proposed Quaker Bridge dams, and in the dotted line shows the line of the old aqueduct and in the full black line shows the course of the new aqueduct.”

The Old and New Croton Aqueduct System, looking south from Putnam County. Scientific American, 1887. Click to enlarge.

The Old and New Croton Aqueduct System, looking south from Putnam County.
Scientific American, 1887. Click to enlarge.

When this map was published the New Croton Aqueduct tunnel was three years away from completion and the dam was still in the planning stages.2

The narrow part of the Croton, where today’s Quaker Bridge crosses the river, was one of several areas subjected to extensive planning—including test borings, cost estimates and structural plans. The site was eventually abandoned in favor of one further up-river, but in 1887 Quaker Bridge was the favored location. For Crotonites the detail showing the bridge is particularly interesting because it depicts a covered wooden bridge. The current metal Quaker Bridge—one of the oldest bridges in Westchester County—wasn’t built until 1894.

Detail of the area from the Old Croton Dam to the Hudson River. Scientific American, 1887. Click to enlarge.

Detail of the area from the Old Croton Dam to the Hudson River. Scientific American, 1887. Click to enlarge.

For a before-and-after bird’s eye view of the flooding of the Croton River Valley after construction of the New Croton Dam see this previous post.


  1. A high resolution image of the Taylor map is available at the Library of Congress website.
  2. The tunnel was opened in 1890 and construction of the New Croton Dam began in 1892.