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.

Ward Carpenter Survey of the Lower Croton River, 1871

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Annotated detail from the survey “The Easterly shore line of the Croton River, from Deer Island to Crawbucky Point, Ward Carpenter & Sons, 1871”. Click the images to enlarge them.

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