This blog post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Archivist for Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.
“A supply of pure and wholesome water is an object so essential to the health and prosperity of a city, that it should form one of the leading features of the public improvements which characterize its growth”- F.B. Tower, civil engineer
On the morning of June 22, 1842, water began flowing through the Croton Aqueduct, making its way to its destination at the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, which began to fill on July 4. Prior to this, New Yorkers had to rely on cisterns, wells, and natural springs for their water supply, which was unreliable in both quality and quantity. The devastation caused by an outbreak of cholera in 1832, followed by the Great Fire of 1835, forced city officials to commission an engineering project of unprecedented scale. In 1837, led by chief engineer John B. Jervis, construction began on a dam and 41 mile aqueduct that would bring water from Putnam County to New York City.
A series of delicate, precisely detailed aquatints by printmaker William James Bennett document the route of the water from it’s natural source at the Croton River to the city, as well as the structures designed to steer the water’s course. They also provide charming glimpses of the landscape and its inhabitants, including people sailing, fishing, and chatting, and cows walking along the roads and grazing in Clendening’s Valley on the Upper West Side of Manhattan Bennett’s prints are based on drawings by Fayette Bartholomew Tower (1817-1857), one of the engineers of the Croton Aqueduct. They were published in Tower’s history of the project, Illustrations of the Croton Aqueduct, Wiley & Putnam, NY, 1843. These aquatints are now part of the New-York Historical Society’s William James Bennett Print Collection PR 220.