Daily Visual 09.06.15: New York City’s Oldest Bridge Reopens

High Bridge 1

Today the High Bridge in New York City reopened after 45 years. With a total length of 1,450 feet, spanning 1,200 feet shore to shore at a height of 138 feet above the Harlem River, the bridge crosses between Highbridge Park in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan, and the Highbridge neighbourhood in the Bronx. Offering exceptional views over the river, the bridge will be usable by pedestrians and cyclists.

Construction on the bridge began in 1837 and was completed in 1848. It was designed as a stone arch bridge, in the style of a Roman aqueduct, and had a vital function for the burgeoning city of New York: impelled by the cholera outbreak of 1832, and the Great Fire of 1835, it was part of the Croton Aqueduct system, which brought much-needed fresh water to the city from Croton River in Westchester County.

The aqueduct system sent water south solely upon the force of gravity. It was designed by the engineer John B. Jervis, with a young James Renwick, Jr. – who would go on to become the architect behind a number of landmark American buildings, including the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, DC, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York – working on the project as an assistant. The High Bridge carried water over into Manhattan, and on to two reservoirs within the core of the city.

At the time, the High Bridge was effectively in the countryside, and a popular site for weekend day trips via the ferry. Hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks soon appeared. From 1864 it featured a pedestrian walkway, allowing visitors to promenade high above the Harlem River. As the rapid growth of the city across the 1800s meant more demand, first between 1866 and 1872 the High Bridge Water Tower was constructed to supplement the supply. Then in 1890, the Croton Aqueduct was superseded by the New Croton Aqueduct – although the old version remained in use until 1955.

The bridge itself stopped carrying water in 1917. Originally comprising fifteen stone arches, in 1927 the five arches spanning the river were removed when the United States Army Corps of Engineers declared them a hazard to the navigation of big ships. They were replaced by a single steel arch. Nine of the original stone arches remain on the Bronx side of the river, while just one remains on the Manhattan side. The aqueduct’s original pipes still lie beneath the bridge’s walkway.

Recreational use of the waterfront faded from the mid-1950s, with the construction of the Major Deegan Expressway in 1956 and the Harlem River Drive in 1964 blocking access and polluting the river. The bridge – now in the hands of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation – was closed no later than 1970.

In the 1990s, the City Parks Foundation led calls for the restoration of the bridge. During the Giuliani administration, Democrat congressman José E. Serrano secured $5 million in early funding. The High Bridge Coalition – comprised of more than fifty local groups, including the Friends of Highbridge Park, the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the New York Restoration Project, and Transportation Alternatives – continued to campaign; and the project received its breakthrough in 2007, when Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative allocated $47.85 million.

Planning commenced in 2009, and preservation and restoration work began in earnest in 2012. The project has cost $61.7 million in total. Allowing Bronx residents a comfortable path to the Highbridge Recreation Center with its large outdoor pools, it will also afford those living in Manhattan easy access to the Harlem River shoreline: a significant improvement on the two sidewalks next to six lanes of traffic along the Washington Bridge. The High Bridge will be open daily between 7 am and 8 pm.

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