The Ultimate Bird’s Eye View of Manhattan

Colton's 1836 map of the sparsely populated area around Central Park. The satellite image in the middle shows the location of what was the Croton Aqueduct Receiving Reservoir (the six yellow dots—probably baseball fields). The large building in the lower right of the satellite image is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click to enlarge.

Colton’s 1836 map of the sparsely populated area around Central Park. The satellite image in the middle shows the location of what was the Croton Aqueduct Receiving Reservoir (the six yellow dots—probably baseball fields). The large building in the lower right of the satellite image is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click to enlarge.

Here’s the perfect follow-up to our recent post on bird’s eye view maps of the Croton Aqueduct—an interactive mashup of an 1836 map of Manhattan, georeferenced with satellite images of the city today.1

Using a “spyglass” map viewer you can switch back and forth between the two maps and explore 177 years of growth and change from the tip of the island to Spuyten Duyvil.

The interactive map is a collaboration between the David Rumsey Map Collection (one of the greatest resources of the internet), ESRI's story maps, and the online Smithsonian Magazine. The three organizations have partnered to create “urban history time viewers showing changes in the growth of six American cities.”

Swapping the images we see Manhattan 177 years later, with Colton's 1836 map in the middle.

Swapping the images we see Manhattan 177 years later, with Colton’s 1836 map in the middle Click to enlarge.

Here’s the link to the New York City map:

The Distributing Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now the site of the New York Public Library.

The Distributing Reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now the site
of the New York Public Library. Click to enlarge.

Here are links to the other interactive maps:


  1. For information on georeferencing, see this Wikipedia article.

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.

Croton Reservoir in Central Park, Rejected Design

Detail from John Rink's "Plan of the Central Park, New York: Entry no. 4 in the Competition," March 20, 1858. New-York Historical Society Library.

Detail from John Rink’s “Plan of the Central Park, New York: Entry no. 4 in the Competition,”
March 20, 1858. New-York Historical Society Library.

Rink's plan included a monumental museum structure, along the south and east sides of the Croton Reservoir.

Rink’s plan included a monumental museum structure, along the south and east sides of the Croton Reservoir.

In 1857 the Central Park Commission held a contest to improve the landscape design of the newly opened park. Thirty three entries were submitted, only five of which have survived today.

The "Star Ground" section of Rink's design.

The “Star Ground” section of Rink’s design.

Two of the rejected designs are currently on display at the New-York Historical Society, giving us a look at the Central Park that might have been. One is a spectacular design by John Rink, filled with formal gardens in elaborate decorative patterns and shapes. Rink was an engineer who had been employed in the initial years of the park’s creation.

In a publication celebrating the 150th anniversary of Central Park in 2003, the Rink design was aptly described at “a folk-art fantasy of Versailles . . . indifferent to topography, filled with ornate symmetries, and crammed with ornamental features.”1

To learn more about Rink’s work and the other rejected design on display, see this post on the New-York Historical Society website.


  1. Viewpoints, Garden History and Landscape Studies at the Bard Graduate Center, vol. 1, num. 1, Fall/Winter, 2003/2004. Available online here.

Croton Reservoir, circa 1865

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This image of the Croton Reservoir in Central Park is from a stereoview, taken as part of Deloss Barnum’s “Views in Central Park” series. Barnum, who during his career was referred to by several variant names, was a photographer in Boston and New York in the mid-19th century. This rare stereoview is currently for sale on eBay, and the seller has graciously allowed us to use these images.

See here for an exquisite 1865 map of Central Park showing the a bird’s-eye view of the reservoir—today the site of the Great Lawn.

The New York Public Library has an online collection of other images in this series.

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Croton Reservoir in Central Park, 1865

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A detail from an exquisite map of Central Park, published in 1865. The map appeared in A picturesque Guide through the whole Park showing all the improvements up to June 1865, published by L. Prang, Boston.

The reservoir was drained in 1931 and filled with excavation material from Rockefeller Center and the Eighth Avenue subway. Today it is the site of the Great Lawn.

The full map can be seen at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

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Croton Reservoir in Central Park, 1874

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A detail from Watson’s New Map of New-York and Adjacent Cities. Published by Gaylord Watson, 16 Beekman St., 1874.

Another detail showing the distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (where the New York Public Library is today) is below.

The entire map is available online at David Rumsey.

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