Earlier this summer, I took a table at an open-air cafe in Midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park and asked the waiter to bring me a glass of vintage New York City tap water. I was celebrating the successful completion of several expeditions along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which lines the eastern side of the Hudson River and has everything to do with the elixir I held up to the light, then drank in one gulp.
These days, New York's water comes from a variety of sources. But in 1842, when the city was bursting its seams, a tinderbox for fires and stricken with cholera bred in contaminated ponds and wells, Westchester County's Croton River — little more than a leak compared with the big, broad Hudson it feeds — poured in to save Gotham.
The 41-mile aqueduct that brought Croton water to Manhattan tunneled through mountains, forged deep ravines and crossed a high, arched bridge over the Harlem River, finally emptying into a reservoir that once stood on the current site of Bryant Park, just about where I was sitting. The Old Croton Aqueduct was the engineering marvel of its day, a precursor of the channel that started carrying water from the Owens River east of the Sierra Mountains to Los Angeles in the early 20th century.
Decommissioned in 1965, the Croton Aqueduct now serves the public in another way, thanks to a path that runs atop it, taking walkers, runners, cross-country skiers and cyclists through some of the prettiest scenery in the lower Hudson River Valley — past sites such as Lyndhurst mansion, the wide Tappan Zee Bridge and Washington Irving's home at Sunnyside — and along the main streets of towns settled by the Dutch around 1700. The northernmost part of the trail is a New York state historic park.
Technically, you could follow the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail from its starting point at Croton Gorge County Park near the hamlet of Croton-on-Hudson, through Westchester County and the Bronx to Manhattan. On that ambitious, 41-mile hike, you'd feel underfoot the country yielding to the city and see a full range of 19th century hydraulic features devised by aqueduct engineer John B. Jervis, including bridges, towers, reservoirs, ventilator shafts and masonry weirs that facilitated periodic draining of the waterway. But the last part of the trek traverses dodgy, unlovely streets in the Bronx and upper Manhattan, making it suitable only for urban habitués.
Or you could explore pieces of the path in Westchester County, as I did by taking Hudson Line Metro-North commuter trains from Grand Central Station in Manhattan to Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington or Tarrytown, all within easy access of the trail. That way, you'd arrive at a town, walk a few miles to the next and catch the train back to Grand Central, an ideal respite from the big city for visitors who don't have cars.
That way, you'd also get to sample the varied charms of Dutch-settled Hudson River hamlets that grew into leafy, affluent New York City suburbs. Some, like Irvington and Sleepy Hollow, remain bastions of blue-blooded Rockefellers and Vanderbilts; others, like Polish-Ukrainian Hastings and Italian Dobbs Ferry, gradually took on a more ethnically mixed, urban character, waxing and waning under the same pressures that beset the metropolis at their doorstep.
Sleepy Hollow I discovered the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail when I lived in New York in the '80s and '90s. In Tarrytown one Easter, I met my parents, who had driven from Washington, D.C., to join me for a visit to Philipsburg Manor, an estate owned by a Dutch family that had stayed loyal to the British in the Revolutionary War. Nearby, at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where a headless horseman is said to ride, we found the trail. We didn't have time to walk it, but it stayed in my mind.
A few years later, I went back upriver to tour Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate in the Pocantico Hills above Tarrytown, with its famed collection of modern sculpture gathered by the late Nelson A. Rockefeller, a former governor of New York. That time, I walked one of the ritziest sections of the path, skirting the Rockefeller State Park Preserve and Sleepy Hollow Country Club, then caught the train at Scarborough Station back to Manhattan.
But now that I've explored broader stretches of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, I'd have to say my favorite sections are around Dobbs Ferry, partly because they remind me so much of Webster Groves, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, and partly because I walked them with Mavis Cain, president of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail.
Together with the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park, the volunteer Friends organization helps preserve and promote the trail. Both have headquarters in a trailer near the aqueduct, on Walnut Street in Dobbs Ferry, where the 800-foot Hudson River palisades start to rise. In 2007, both groups will move across the street to accommodations in a two-story Italianate house, currently under renovation, built for one of the aqueduct overseers in the 1840s.
Mavis and I walked the trail from her house in Dobbs Ferry about two miles south to Hastings. Along the way she regaled me with Old Croton Aqueduct lore.
The salaries paid to immigrant Irish laborers who built the waterway ranged from 75 cents to $1 an hour. Westchester landowners called them "Patlanders" and disparaged their shantytowns, hygiene and love of fiery spirits. Some of the Irish stayed in the area after the aqueduct was completed in 1842. Others became New York City plumbers, servicing newfangled indoor water closets, amenities encouraged by the aqueduct.
Gerard T. Koeppel, author of "Water for Gotham," even suggests that the conduit stimulated the invention of toilet paper. Koeppel sees the Old Croton Aqueduct as a public works model, completed despite political squabbling and chicanery.
But what I really love about the trail is the smell of backyard barbecues, the daredevil squirrels performing circus acts on telephone wires, kids on bikes doing wheelies, cocker spaniels and Jack Russell terriers in standoffs and the neighborliness of the path that connects disparate communities.
I borrowed a bike from a Friends group member who lives near the overseer's house and rode about five miles north to robber baron Jay Gould's Lyndhurst mansion, a sterling stretch of the trail ending near Tarrytown. Then I pedaled back to Dobbs Ferry and crashed a brunch given by a man I met on the trail.
The next day, I rented a car and drove north to Croton Gorge County Park so I could see the river's dam. It is an impressive edifice, but not the one John Jervis built. His impoundment was superseded and submerged in the 1890s by a new Croton dam and aqueduct, needed by ever-thirsty Manhattanites. Now, only a fraction of New York's water comes from the Croton.
But if you go to the Bryant Park Cafe, ask for a glass of tap water. And if you want to confound him, tell him to make it Croton.
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Following the trail
From LAX to New York's JFK Airport, United, American, America West and Delta fly nonstop. To Newark airport, American, Continental and United offer nonstop flights, and United, America West, Northwest, US Airways and Delta have connecting flights (with change of plane). Continental, United, American, Delta, Northwest and AirTran have connecting service to LaGuardia airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $344.
The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail follows a 41-mile conduit completed in 1842 to provide fresh water to New York City. In Westchester County, N.Y, a 26.2-mile stretch of the path follows the eastern side of the Hudson River. South of Yonkers, the trail crosses the Bronx and the Harlem River and follows city streets to Manhattan's Bryant Park.
Westchester trail heads can be reached from New York City on Metro-North commuter trains to such Hudson River towns as Ossining, Tarrytown and Dobbs Ferry. New York City subway lines 1, 9 and 4 provide access to the trail in the Bronx.
WHERE TO EAT:
Mi Bohio Bar Cafe, 12 Main St., Tarrytown; (914) 332-7272, http://www.mibbc.com . An easygoing place with a Latin accent near the midpoint of the trail in Westchester County. Entrees $7.95-$14.95.
Carriage House Cafe, 635 S. Broadway, Tarrytown; (914) 524-7900. On the trail. Serves salads and sandwiches on the grounds of one of the great Hudson River estates. Entrees $5.95-$11.25.
Solera Westchester, 1 Bridge St., Irvington; (914) 591-2233, http://www.solerany.com . A Spanish-Argentine restaurant that specializes in tapas. Entrees $17-$30 (for paella).
Celtic Corner, 73 Main St., Dobbs Ferry; (914) 693-6566. Irish pub food and drink. Entrees $7-$15.
TO LEARN MORE:
Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park, 15 Walnut St., Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522; (914) 693-5259, nysparks.state.ny.us.
Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, 15 Walnut St., Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522; (914) 693-4117, http://www.aqueduct.org .
— Susan Spano