Today, New York City’s tap water is some of the best around. That wasn’t the case, however, in the 1830s, when people were adding booze to the drinking water to improve its flavor — and, coincidentally, a cholera epidemic was raging that would kill more than 3,500 city residents. While no one connected the disease to the filthy water at the time, officials knew a change was needed to handle increasing water demand.
The result was one of the first great gravity-based modern aqueducts. The Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842, bringing fresh water from Westchester to reservoirs in Manhattan (including one that once sat on the current site of the main research branch of the New York Public Library), a 41-mile haul that was closed permanently in 1955 and replaced by systems that draw water from the Delaware and Catskills watersheds, and the New Croton Aqueduct, which runs roughly parallel to the old one.
New Yorkers have ventured out for walks on a trail atop the tunnel since it was dug, a form of recreation that was officially institutionalized in 1968 when the northernmost 26 miles officially became the Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park. Today, you can travel the trail by foot, bike, horse, and even cross-country ski, winding past suburban backyards, through small-town Main Streets, and occasionally near historic sites worth a slight detour. Old stone ventilators that once equalized atmospheric pressure, and which are now marked with graffiti, tower over parts of the trail. Below there is a cool stone tunnel, which the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct occasionally provides tours of.
An especially alluring aspect for car-less residents of the five boroughs is its proximity to public transportation. Metro-North has multiple stops that are easily accessible to the trail as far north as Crotonville, making for a convenient day trip from the city.
To get some history of the tunnels and towns plus a good long walk, fill your water bottle from the tap at home, take the train to Irvington, then head north to Ossining, a three-hour hike if you don’t make any stops. Though you should plan some time for those: The Lyndhurst Mansion was built in the same period as the aqueduct and looms just off the trail, its Gothic Revival design impressive (though some found it sort of hideous at the time). Since 1961, the estate has been in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it’s used as a museum, wedding venue, and location for movie shoots. You can pay for tours — one of which includes a peek at what might be the oldest private indoor bowling alley in the country — or you can wander the well-manicured grounds on your own and enjoy spectacular views of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Intrepid hikers can carry on to the beautiful New Croton Dam, the tallest in the world when it was completed in 1907. But Ossining is a good stopping point for those who’ve built up an appetite. Here the trail leads downtown, where you’ll find varied dining options. After a long walk, the portions at Churrasqueira Ribatejo will hit the spot. The Portuguese restaurant is best known for its delicious rotisserie chicken, which comes with sides — get the salad and the potato chips, and you’ll nap well on the train ride back to the city. Other good options include The Boathouse for drinks and burgers and an excellent view of the river, and the new 6 Degrees of Separation, which features beers brewed by the owners and made with mostly locally grown ingredients.
And for a colorful taste of the town’s history, stop by the small Sing Sing Prison exhibit — which includes a replica electric chair that was built by inmates — installed at the Caputo Community Center. (If that’s too intense, its other exhibit is dedicated to the Old Croton Aqueduct.)
How to get there
Take the Metro-North Hudson line out of Grand Central. Schedule and fare information are available on the MTA website.
How to get around
The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct offer both printable and digital maps on their website.
What to visit
Where to eat
Churrasqueira Ribatejo in Ossining offers large portions of Portuguese com- fort foods like chourico and octopus, but don’t miss the rotisserie chicken. The Boathouse is a little out of the way, but is worth hunting down for a drink with a river view. Newcomer 6 Degrees of Separation was co-founded by an avid home brewer, so the beer selection is well curated.
What to read on the train
Gerard T. Koeppel’s exhaustive and entertaining “Water for Gotham: A History” provides a colorful backstory to the aqueduct’s origins.