Bronx River Bike Tour

May 20, 2012
 Williamsbridge Oval, E. Gunhill Road

Bronx River Ride notes Matt Malina  
Route Map 5/20/2012
Route map part I  & II
Pics & More Pics

Did you know that the Bronx River Is NYC’s only true fresh water river?  It was considered a source for NYC’s drinking water in the early 1830’s. By the end of the 1800’s it was labeled “an open sewer.”  The river has made a comeback since the days of reckless dumping and now supports many forms of aquatic life like Alewife Herring and even a beaver named “Jose.”

Come be awed by its beauty and bike with NYC H2O and the Bronx River Alliance as we tour the Bronx River from Williamsbridge Oval to its source in Valhalla.

Williamsbridge Reservoir 1893 Map
Old Kensico Dam

Same picture as above from the NYPL digital archives. Here is a picture of the old dam coming down. A good resource for other pictures of Kensico Reservoir.

From “Liquid Assets”  Diane Galusha via DEP archives.

Bronx River Pipeline

From “Waterworks” Kevin Bone and Gina Pollara

Williambridge Reservoir

From “Waterworks” Kevin Bone and Gina Pollara

From Wikipedia

April 23, 2011  Bronx River Bike Tour Notes

Bronx River Background

The New York and Harlem Railroad was constructedbetween 1832 and 1852. Cornelius Vanderbilt obtained control of the Hudson River Railroad in 1864, soon after he bought the parallel New York and Harlem Railroad. (Wiki)

The railroad paved the way for the Bronx River valley to become an industrial corridor.  During this time, people often used the river for waste disposal. By the end of the nineteenth century the Bronx River had degenerated into what the Bronx Valley Sewer Commission called an “open sewer” in 1896.

The Bronx had many fresh water streams and rivers flowing through it at one point in addition to the Bronx River, Tibbet’s Brook, Westchester Creek and the Hutchinson River (Hall page 44). The Bronx River is the only one left the other have been covered over.

The Need for a Reliable Source of Clean Drinking Water

In 1842 the city’s population was 300,000 and per capita usage was 27 gallons a day. Keep in mind this was pre-indoor plumbing. Indoor plumbing became more common in the 1860’s after the civil war.  Also these were the days of steam engines a typical factory could use several thousand gallons of water a day.
(Source:    ???   )

“The population of Manhattan was ballooning, from 1.1 million in 1880 to 1.4 million in 1890.  Water consumption rose from 92 mgd in 1880 (about 83 gd per capita) to 145 mgd in 1890.”  (Liquid Assets page 53)  This works out to be 103 gallons per day per capita!!   For comparison today the average person uses about 160 gd.

The need for water to extinguish fires and combat the spread of disease from water born pathogens like Cholera, increased the need for a reliable clean municipal water system.

In 1798, Dr. Joseph Browne suggests building a small dam across the Bronx River below Williamsbridge for a reservoir.  It didn’t happen.

1824 Canvass White, an engineer who worked on the Eerie canal and invented a new kind of hydraulic cement studied it again and recommended that it be tapped but it was not carried out.

(Bone page 70) and (“The Water-Supply of the City of New York. 1658-1895” by Edward Wegmann)

In 1874 NYC annexed the Westchester towns of West Farms, Morrisania, and Kingsbridge which all became parts of the Bronx so, its 50,000 residents, it needed more water.

1879 Commissioner of Public Works Allan Campbell proposed tapping the Bronx River again. This time it stuck.

In 1884 the Old Kensico Dam was built to build a reservoir with Bronx River water using earth and stone and was 45 feet high (verified) and about 100 feet across (estimate).  It’s original name was Bronx River Reservoir.  The reservoir was 1.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide, and held 1.6 billion gallons (the Central Park Reservoir holds 1 billion gallons).  Water was delivered from it to the Williamsbridge Reservoir via a 4-foot diameter cast iron pipe and supplied up to 20 million gallons per day.   

The Williamsbridge Reservoir was completed and operational in 1889 and held 150 million gallons of water. It was made of stone, the very same stone used for the keepers house and was 13 acres and 40 feet deep.

The reservoir was taken off line in 1919 as it was no longer needed because the New Croton Aqueduct had been completed in 1893 and the Catskill system in 1917. It was turned into a park in 1937 by Robert Moses.

The Keeper’s House, located at the northeast end of the reservoir, was constructed in 1889-90 gray-tan gneiss with smooth, speckled-gray granite trim. . It was abandoned by the city when the reservoir was no longer needed in 1919.  Plans were made in the 1930s to convert it to a branch library. However, Dr. Isaac H. Barkey, a physicist and engineer, and his wife Dorothy, interested in purchasing the house, convinced the city to build a new library nearby and acquired the property in 1946. After five decades in residence, the Barkeys sold the house in 1998 to the Mosholu Preservation Corporation whose offices are contained within.

“The Keepers House is the only surviving building in New York City associated with the Bronx and Byram Rivers water supply system.”  LPC, 2000

The Bronx River System was considered ill conceived because the New Croton System came on line in 1893, shortly after the Bronx System went online in 1889.  The new Croton system supplied 300 mgd as compared to 20 mgd.  It was considered a graft- project for Boss Tweed’s friends.  

Old Croton 1837-1843 95 mgd
Bronx River  1880-1885  20 mgd
New Croton System 1884-1893 300 mgd

The new Kensico reservoir was constructed from 1911 – 1917. It holds 38 billion gallons 7 square miles, about 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. The reservoir is supplied by the Catskill and Delaware Aqueducts whose reservoirs are about 70 miles to the north and west. NYC uses 1.2 billion gallons of water a day. 9 million residents of NYC and towns along the way use this water.

The dam is 400 feet upstream from the original dam.   It is 1,825 feet long and 307 feet high. The top that you are looking at  is about 100 feet up. Most of it you can’t see and is underground. So about 200 feet of it are below us.

It is made of concrete but the part we are looking at its pretty face that is made of local granite that was quarried by Italian stonemasons at the Cranberry Lake Quarry nearby. If you drive along the roads you will find an active quarry.  I got lost while driving up here last week and I stumbled on it. There are other types of granite too from other quarries in New England.

Up top, it is 28 feet wide and there is a road that crosses it that the DEP closed after 9/11.  At its base underground it is 233 feet wide! And for all you math heads, it tapers up in the shape of a hyperbola.

Chemicals are added here at DEP buildings up the road on the left. The reservoir also serves as a settling basin for Cat/Del water to let sediment fall out.

(Hall, Page 64  )

2% of the Kensico’s Reservoir’s water is supplied by streams that once fed the Bronx River. So, NYC still drinks water from the Bronx River.
Page 51,  The Bronx River  Maarten De Kadt

Concrete Plant Park was home to a working concrete batch mix plant sitting on the western bank of the Bronx River. According to a report prepared by Public Archaeology Facility at SUNY Binghamton, cement manufacturing began at this site after 1945 and ran until 1987. The Transit Mix Concrete Corporation built the silos, hoppers, and conveyor structures that still stand at Concrete Park today as a reminder of the park’s industrial history.  The site belonged to the Dept of Transportation and so was a whole to do to transfer ownership to the Parks Dept.  Once underdeveloped, this new waterfront park was opened in October 2009.

William Henry Niles 1860 – 1935  Father of the Bronx River Park

“When I first conceived the idea of the Bronx River Parkway, it was not with the thought of building a park driveway but with the purpose of protecting a beautiful little stream, running through a lovely valley, from destruction. The defilement had progressed to such a point that in five years more the river would have been an open sewer creating a forbidding no-man’s-land through what is now one of the most beautifully developed suburbs of any city and practically ruining one of the finest city parks…Sewage was discharged into the river wherever sewers were constructed, refuse and garbage were dumped into the river together with rubbish, such as worn out automobile tires, discarded boilers, barrel hoops, everything in fact. The acquisition of the riverbed and adjoining uplands by the parkway commission stopped all these abuses, the river was cleared of rubbish, the discharge of sewage gradually stopped and the river restored to its original condition. The resulting improvement has been almost unbelievable. A high class of residence building immediately commenced and has continued without intermission.”

“From the earliest times it has seemed as though every man’s hand was against the river. Although, when our fathers first came over, our rivers were teeming with fish and it would seem as though the desire to protect such a valuable and cheap source of food supply would have furnished a strong motive for their protection, no such inclination is anywhere apparent but from the earliest times whenever a community grew up alongside a river the work of spoliation immediately commenced. The first misuse was the dumping of garbage and other refuse material into the river, then as drainage was undertaken the addition of the community’s sewage to the stream, then with the advent of manufactories, the location of the most unattractive utilities along the banks and the drainage of tannin, sludge and acid and other chemicals into the river. This practice has continued to the present day with the result that our rivers are almost devoid of fish and wherever a city has grown up the river banks present so distressing a sight that no one ever thinks of erecting a residence on the shore of the stream or, indeed, any other structure than a factory or a coal yard.”

Bronx River Park built between 1907 – 1925.  

The Bronx River Parkway Opened 1925 and went from Kensico Dam in Valhalla to the Botanical Garden. It was the first such parkway in the country. And it was well liked and set the stage for others like it like the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA and the Pallisades Parkway.

Robert Moses extended it all the way down to the Bruckner Expressway in the 1950’s.

Why did it take so long?
No one imagined that seven years would pass before New York City and Westchester County agreed on the terms of the funding, that it would take three more years to acquire the needed  land, and that World War I would put the project on hold.   Although in theory the parkway was a joint project ofNew York City and Westchester County, it was more a shotgun marriage than a love match.  And yet, with all these obstacles, the parkway that finally opened in 1925 set the standard for roadways in the United States and the world for decades to come.  Source “THE BRONX RIVER PARKWAY”  BY BARBARA R. TROETEL, Ph.D

Gilmore Clarke landscape architect also did Pallisades, Blue Ridge Mtn and Saw Mill.

NY TImes Article “Founder Honored On Bronx Parkway” October 16, 1938