Highbridge Water Tower

December 12, 2021 – New York, NY

Brochure & Map: Highbridge Park: A Visitors Guide

Street parking available near Highbridge Recreation Center – 2301 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10033

Please note: There are multiple access points to reach the tower. The address above will leave you closest to the tower.

Bathrooms on site – No entrance fees


History:

The tower in Highbridge Park near the west end of High Bridge was built in 1872 as part of the Croton Water System that brought fresh water to Manhattan. It was the first water tower to be built in Manhattan as part of this system and the only tower that survives. The octagonal structure is made of rough-cut stone and is almost 400 feet above the high water level of the nearby Harlem River. The Highbridge Water Tower stopped being used for the water supply system in 1949. The tower became a New York City Landmark in 1967 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The tower was renovated in 1989 to 1990 and was closed again for renovations around 2011, but reopened for scheduled tours beginning in November 2021.

Highbridge Water Tower - 1872

Highbridge Water Tower – 1872

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

The High Bridge Tower is at the Manhattan end of the famed High Bridge, originally named the Aqueduct Bridge. It opened as part of the Croton Aqueduct in 1848 and reopened as a pedestrian walkway in 2015 after being closed for over 45 years. High Bridge is New York City’s oldest standing bridge and connects Manhattan and the Bronx, spanning the Harlem River. The High Bridge connects the neighborhoods of Washington Heights in Manhattan and Highbridge in the Bronx, and is accessible from both boroughs.

High Bridge during construction

High Bridge during construction

The walkway was completed in 1864, making it a popular spot to promenade on a nice day. After construction of the Major Deegan Expressway in 1956 and Harlem River Drive in 1964, public use of the waterfront faded. The river became polluted, paths were blocked, and the pull of the parks on the water’s edge vanished. In the 1970’s, public access to the bridge was discontinued.

High Bridge

High Bridge

Local pressure to reopen the bridge began soon after, and eventually, groups such as The High Bridge Coalition were able to coalesce that support into a citizen-led campaign to restore the High Bridge and its neighboring parks. In 2012, NYC began rehabilitating the bridge, and it was reopened in June 2015, but the tower remained off limits.

High Bridge & Tower - 2015

High Bridge & Tower – 2015

The 200-foot tall octagonal Tower was built to bring fresh drinking water to the highest points in northern Manhattan. Water from the Croton Aqueduct started flowing in the lower and middle sections of the island in 1842 and the High Bridge was completed in 1848, as a permanent means to carry the aqueduct across the Harlem River.

Upper Manhattan was not served by the aqueduct that passed through it due to the area’s hilly terrain. The system provided water pressure by means of gravity and therefore locations higher than the Central Park Reservoir were left high and dry.

To remedy this, New York City built the High Service Water Works near the High Bridge, consisting of several facilities. The Highbridge Tower, completed in the summer of 1872, is all that remains. Other components that are now long gone and mostly forgotten, included a reservoir, opened in 1870 and replaced by the Highbridge Park pool in the mid 1930’s, plus pumping stations, a coal dock, and a coal shed.

High Bridge, High Service Water Works and Reservoir - 1871

High Bridge, High Service Water Works and Reservoir – 1871

The octagonal tower once held a 47-thousand gallon water tank. A steam powered pumping station near the base of the tower pumped water into the tank from an adjacent reservoir, now a public swimming pool. As the water flowed back down from the tower down into city pipes, gravity created water pressure.

The Tower operated until December 15, 1949, when it was rendered unnecessary by a new electric powered pumping station on Amsterdam Avenue. The Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity wanted to raze the Tower, but it was preserved thanks to, of all people, Robert Moses in his capacity as Parks Commissioner. Along with the High Bridge, also mothballed in 1949, it was transferred to Parks jurisdiction in 1955.

Since then, it has hosted an electric carillon, been designated a New York City Landmark, and was damaged by a 1984 fire and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.


Present Day:

Standing on a bluff 200 feet above the Harlem River, the recently restored High Bridge Water Tower is an iconic, yet enigmatic landmark for many New Yorkers. Built to bring Croton water to the highest points in northern Manhattan, the 200-foot tall structure is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2022.

Highbridge Tower - 2015

Highbridge Tower – 2015

Described in 1967 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “one of Manhattan’s most picturesque architectural monuments,” the Highbridge Water Tower reopened in October 2021 following a 5 million dollars restoration project. While it no longer is part of the city’s water system, the 200-foot landmark is the only one of its kind that remains today.

Starting November 2021, the NYC Urban Park Rangers will lead free public tours inside the Highbridge Water Tower, which will remain closed to the public at all other times. The tour takes participants inside the iconic tower while learning about the history of the city’s water supply from 200 feet above the Harlem River. Registration is required.


Tour Overview:

Public tours of the inside of the newly renovated Highbridge Tower began on November 21, 2021. We registered and attended a tour that was given on December 12, 2021. It was a blustery Saturday with temps in the high 30’s and having arrived early, we decided to walk around a little to stay warm.

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

We waited patiently for the NYC Urban Park Rangers to arrive, and unlock the door so we could tour the inside of this historic structure.

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

What is now the Tower’s observation level originally housed a 47,000-gallon tank at an elevation of 336 feet. It is a light-filled space, with two large arch-shaped windows on each of the tower’s eight walls, facilitating tank inspections and repairs in an era before electric lighting. Today they offer expansive vistas.

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

The recent renovation project included restoration of cracked granite, repointing, restoration of the iron staircase and iron railings, new 15-Foot-high windows, repairs to the roof and weathervane, and several safety measures.

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

Highbridge Tower - December 2021

Highbridge Tower – December 2021

A view of High Bridge from the base of the tower.

High Bridge – December 2021

High Bridge – December 2021

View south of the Harlem River, with the Bronx on the left and Manhattan on the right.

looking south from the base of Highbridge Tower

looking south from the base of Highbridge Tower


The Tour:

In the center of the tower are the pipes that once transported water up and down the tower. We climbed the 174 steps to the top of the Highbridge Water Tower to enjoy 360° views of NYC and parts of NJ.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

All the views are through glass, so bringing glass cleaning wipes is a good idea.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Looking north up the Harlem River to the Alexander Hamilton Bridge with the Washington Bridge just beyond.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Looking southwest over the Highbridge Park Pools and Washington Heights. A sliver of the Hudson River can be seen in the upper left.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Looking west at the George Washington Bridge.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

A smaller spiral staircase, off limits to the public, was originally a public lookout in the Tower’s narrow cupola, but the current use of the old tank room provides a more spacious vantage point.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

The chapel style windows near the top offer views of the George Washington Bridge, the swimming pool, and the Manhattan skyline.

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

Highbridge Tower Tour – December 2021

If you would like to attend a free tour, led by the Urban Park Rangers, visit NYC Parks for more information.


John T. Brush Stairway:

If you get a chance to visit the Highbridge Water Tower, you may want to check out the John T. Brush Stairway. It’s just under a mile walk through one of the park’s trails. You can also walk down Edgecombe Avenue as well.

Near the southern end of Highbridge Park is a promontory near the western shore of the Harlem River named Coogan’s Bluff. A deep escarpment descends 175 feet from Edgecombe Avenue to the river, creating a sheltered area between the bluff and river known as Coogan’s Hollow. For 73 years, the hollow was home to the Polo Grounds stadium.

Fans on Coogan's Bluff watch a game between the Giants and Cubs at the Polo Grounds, September 23, 1908

Fans on Coogan’s Bluff watch a game between the Giants and Cubs at the Polo Grounds, September 23, 1908

From 1890 until 1963, the bluff overlooked the Polo Grounds, a professional sports venue that served as home field for Major League Baseball’s New York Giants from 1891 until the franchise’s move to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. Sportswriters commonly used Coogan’s Bluff as a nickname for the Polo Grounds, as Chavez Ravine now refers to Dodger Stadium, although the ballpark was actually situated in Coogan’s Hollow, the bottomland between the bluff and the river.

Coogan’s Bluff had long been a sort of Tightwad Hill for local fans, a place where those unwilling or unable to pay the stadium’s entrance fee had a clear, if distant, view of the proceedings at no charge.

For nearly a half-century, the stairway played a different role, carrying tenants to a high-rise housing project that replaced the Polo Grounds, and until recently they had crumbled into a dim reminder of a once-proud, bygone era.

John T. Brush Stairway

John T. Brush Stairway

John T. Brush Stairway

John T. Brush Stairway

The original steel lettering remained intact for the past century, although corners of the landing had broken away. During restoration, the landing was returned to its original look.

John T. Brush Stairway

John T. Brush Stairway

In 2011, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department launched a $950,000 restoration project and the stairway reopened in 2013. Major League Baseball gave $50,000 to the project, along with other old Polo Grounds tenants, the San Francisco Giants; the Yankees, who played there from 1913-23; the Mets; the New York Jets (nee Titans), who played their first four AFL seasons there, and the New York football Giants, who played there from 1925-55.

John T. Brush Stairway - High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway – High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway - High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway – High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway - High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway – High Bridge Park

About halfway up the stairway there is a landing, before the steps turn left to the top of Coogan’s Bluff (Edgecombe Avenue). Steel letters in the concrete landing read: “The John T. Brush Stairway. Presented by the New York Giants.”

John T. Brush Stairway - High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway – High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway - High Bridge Park

John T. Brush Stairway – High Bridge Park


Sources:


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