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A Walk to the Marvelous High Bridge and its Tower

In 19th century New York, sightseers marveled at the grand sight of the High Bridge over the Harlem River. In the years following the Civil War, they traveled up the river by steamer from Harlem or by train from Grand Central Depot just to see it and walk across its mighty arched span. Some came by carriage from Central Park. They all came to see the grand 1,450-foot-long bridge that was built in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct, the system that delivered fresh water to the city and was itself a huge and complex marvel of engineering.

View of the High Bridge and tower. The bridge connects Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

The water moved to New York City via gravity, beginning upstream above the Old Croton Damn in Yorktown and then flowing south near the eastern bank of the Hudson all the way down into southern Westchester County, later this part of the Bronx, crossing the High Bridge (or the Aqueduct Bridge, in its day) through the large pipes just under the walkway and above the arches, and finally into Manhattan.
View of the High Bridge from Highbridge Park

The whole system stretched 41 miles, dotting the landscape with fascinating structures, including an enormous bricked above-ground reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue that was said to look Egyptian. The Great Lawn in Central Park fills the space once occupied by the massive Croton Reservoir. Though impressive, it couldn't last. The city's growing population would eventually require replacements for the extraordinary system, and piece by piece the structure crumbled into the city's very own Roman-like aqueduct ruins. The Old Croton Aqueduct, even today, has many fans, and several good hikes can be devoted to seeking out its almost mythical traces.

View from the High Bridge looking south.

After decades of disuse, the High Bridge reopened in 2015 to great fanfare, allowing residents of the Bronx and upper Manhattan to meet and greet above the water. The walkway spanning the river is dotted with golden medallions commemorating the key moments in its history. For the flâneur set, a High Bridge marker vividly imagines the heyday of boulevard strolling in proper city dress.  

The medallion celebrates the popularity of the bridge in the years following the American Civil War.

Anyone traveling by car or boat will likely notice the bridge's tall tower dominating this section of the Harlem River landscape. A walk to the High Bridge affords close-up views.

View of Highbridge Park

A travel guide from 1876, Appletons' Illustrated Hand-book of American Cities, suggests a walk across the High Bridge as well as a visit to the nearby Morris-Jumel Mansion (65 Jumel Terrace), Manhattan's oldest house. Dating from 1765, the house serves as one of the richest connections to New York's role in the American Revolution. A handsome house and engaging museum, there's little reason to quibble with this travel tip.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "High Bridge and its Tower." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (source)

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "High Bridge, N.Y." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (source)

Directions to the High Bridge:

Walk from the 168 Station to Highbridge Park. Follow the path to the right and walk past the tower to the staircase down to the bridge. Walk down the stairs and cross the bridge. On the return, instead of hiking up the stairs, follow the accessible path through the park to the south. To extend the walk, visit the nearby Morris-Jumel Mansion and Sylvan Terrace.



Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from September 25, 2016. Historic images in the public domain from The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

See also walks on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail north of the city:

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