From Westchester to a Manhattan Potter’s Field

From Westchester to a Manhattan Potter’s Field

Many New York City residents viewed the watershed as an abstraction, and yet lived with some of its prominent infrastructure that transformed the face of the city. This included the High Bridge (which carried the old Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River into Manhattan), Central Park’s two reservoirs, and the Croton Reservoir at Manhattan’s Murray Hill. The Croton Reservoir, with its 50’ high granite walls and public promenade atop, stood where the main branch of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are today. Before it was a reservoir, the land where Bryant Park now stands was a potter’s field. To build the reservoir, thousands of bodies needed to be exhumed and reburied on Wards Island. The reservoir contributed to 5th Avenue becoming one of Manhattan’s most fashionable streets.

A black and white photograph of a large brick structure, about 10 stories high  a single entrance/door and no windows. There is an American flag atop the structure. There are people walking around it. There are vines growing on the outside of the structure.
A black and white photograph of a large brick structure, about 10 stories high with no windows. The architectural style is Egyptian Revival. There are people walking around it. There are vines growing on the outside of the structure.
Photographs of Croton Aqueduct’s Distributing Reservoir, also known as the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City, 1902 (tope) and 1899 (bottom). Source: Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society.

“In the heart of Midtown the New York Public Library’s main branch is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Prior to its construction in 1900 the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir [also known as the Croton Distributing Reservoir] stood on the site of the library. …Between 1842 and 1900, the four-acre reservoir held 20 million gallons of water for the growing island metropolis. Its previous sources at Collect Pond and various springs across town were running dry and becoming polluted from urbanization. Water contained at Murray Hill originated from Croton Reservoir in Westchester County.”

—Sergey Kadinsky, Hidden Waters blog

A black and white photograph of a large brick structure, about 10 stories high with no windows. The architectural style is Egyptian Revival. There are people walking around it. There are vines growing on the outside of the structure.
Croton Aqueduct’s Distributing Reservoir, also known as Murray Hill, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street looking South West, New York City, 1899. Source: Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society.
Screenshot of a Google maps Street View of the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue.
Google Maps street view of The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street looking South West. The building is situated on the site of the former Croton Aqueduct Distributing Reservoir and opened in 1911.

Remnants of the Croton Distributing Reservoir can be seen in the foundation of the South Court of the library. The stone foundation was from the reservoir. The marble on top of those stones were built as part of the library. Source: z22 / Creative Commons License via Wikimedia.

Cropped section of the map on the right showing the High Bridge crossing over the Harlem River in the Bronx.
A black and white photograph of a bridge that rises above the nearby area and trees, with rounded arches. A tower stands in the background on the other side of the bridge.
Stereograph showing a man and woman in the foreground and High Bridge in the background, from the east side. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
Bird’s-eye-view of the city of New York. 1879. By Will L. Taylor. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
A map colored green (land) and blue (bodies of water) showing a rectangular reservoir on the left and a lake-shaped reservoir in the middle of Central Park. The lable reads "The Aqueduct Commission, Central Park Gatehouse"
Source: NYC Water via Medium, ‘Croton Aqueduct Celebrates 175th Anniversary’ (2017).

“The rectangular reservoir on the left was part of the original Croton system and first received water from the (Old) Croton Aqueduct on June 27, 1842. Known as the York Hill Receiving Reservoir, it was constructed before Central Park existed and had a capacity of 150 million gallons. The New Receiving Reservoir on the right was constructed between 1857–1862 and though originally a rectangular design was reshaped anticipating the naturalized design of Vaux and Olmstead’s Greensward Plan for Central Park.”

—From “Croton Aqueduct Celebrates 175th Anniversary” by NYC Water.

Seneca Village

A black and white line drawing map of Central park with the rectangular Receiving Reservoir in the middle of the map. A purple circle is placed on the edge of the reservoir showing properties and streets, this is where Seneca Village once stood.
Map of the lands included in the Central Park, from a topographical survey, June 17th, 1856; Seneca Village is circled on the map. Published by Egbert L. Viele in 1856. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections (link). Public domain.

Seneca Village, circled on the map above, was a community displaced by construction of the public water system and Central Park, impacting land and home ownership for Black New Yorkers.

“Prior to the construction of the reservoir, this site was known as York Hill, home to a small African American community that was pushed out in 1838 to make way for the reservoir. Most of the residents relocated a block west to an existing community known as Seneca Village…located between 7th and 8th Avenues…from 83rd to 86th Streets.”

“When the receiving reservoir was built on the village’s eastern border, local residents worked on its construction…”

“The demise of Seneca Village Began in 1853, when state lawmakers authorized the creation of Central Park. The Press regarded Seneca Village as a shantytown, but property owners held off condemnation in a protracted two-year court battle. In 1856, the nearly 300 residents were sent eviction notices. The New York Times did not hide the motives behind the inclusion of Seneca Village’s land within Central Park: “The sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy.”

—Sergey Kadinsky, Hidden Waters of New York City, p. 38.

A drawing of a three story church on the corner of a street with an American flag flying from a pole on the top of the building. The street is made of dirt and there are people standing outside.
From the Central Park convervancy website: The AME Zion Church located in lower Manhattan purchased land in Seneca Village initially for burial. Later, in 1853, they opened a satellite church in the Village. This image does not show the church in Seneca Village but one located in the West Village. From the collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
A colored map of an area of land showing houses and surrounding streets. The edge of the Croton Reservoir seen in the map above can be seen. Some of the homes are highlighted and marked with the landowners family names such as the McCollin Family and the Henson Family.
A 19th century map of part of the settlement, marked with names of some residents. Image and caption from CityMetric. The map is the circled area near the reservior in the Egbert L. Viele 1856 map above.

Further Reading

Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir, Hidden Waters Blog

Croton Aqueduct Celebrates 175th Anniversary, NYC Water on Medium, 2017.

Seneca Village, National Park Service website

Seneca Village Project

Seneca Village, Mapping the African American Past (MAAP)

The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes, Ujijji Davis in the Avery Review

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