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  • Industrial Ruins, Urban Exploring, and the Postindustrial Picturesque
  • Anthony J. Fassi (bio)

On July 4, 1842, the Croton Aqueduct delivered its first gallons of pure water to New York City's thirsty residents. Along with the Erie Canal, the aqueduct secured New York's future as a major seat of industry and commerce. Its gravity-fed system of masonry and iron tubes carried the pure waters of the Croton River over forty miles from Westchester County to a massive holding reservoir in what is now Central Park and a smaller distributing reservoir at Murray Hill. The aqueduct served the city for over a century before being decommissioned in 1965.1

Gotham celebrated the opening of the aqueduct and its first reliable supply of clean water on October 14, 1842 (Fig. 1). The city's newspapers described the celebration as the largest since Independence Day, 1776. Between eighteen and thirty thousand people were thought to have marched in a five-mile-long parade. Firemen and temperance workers were among the best-represented celebrants. Horse-drawn fire engines had their ladders decorated "with stripes of bunting, the American flag, and garlands of flowers." The Butchers [End Page 141] of New York City and Brooklyn rode on a large car with the "stuffed skin of an ox of tremendous size." Members of the Mechanics' Institute "carried a beautiful working model of a steam engine." Along with Mayor Robert Morris, Governor William Henry Seward addressed a throng of celebrants gathered outside City Hall. Seward referred to the day's events as the "sublime spectacle" of "a vast community uniting in one common emotion." At four o'clock in the afternoon, Samuel Colt's harbor defense system, the Colt Sub-Marine Battery, joined in the celebration by blowing up a small brig offshore. In the evening, fireworks exploded over a new Croton-fed water fountain in Union Square (Croton Water Celebration 1842).2

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Figure 1.

"Croton Water Celebration 1842," published by J. F. Atwill. Eno Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

The Croton celebration is the kind of public moment historian David Nye describes as an example of the "American technological sublime." Nye explains that in a physical world "increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men with [End Page 142] transcendent significance." Expressions of the technological sublime are phenomena that have both "awed the public" and "attracted maximum national attention" (1994, xvi). In America, says Nye, "sublime technological objects were assumed to be active forces working for democracy" (33). The Old Croton Aqueduct was one of nineteenth-century America's most important engineering feats. It served the young Democratic Republic by allowing New York City to grow beyond the confines of its polluted groundwater and susceptibility to waterborne diseases like cholera. The clean waters of the Croton River sustained a large population of laborers and helped New York City maintain its role as the nation's financial center.

Over 150 years later, in her 2005 book, New York Underground, urban explorer Julia Solis describes the Old Croton Aqueduct as "New York's most magnificent ruin." Its remnants "still lie beneath the city," she writes, "its winding masonry tube rotting away in desolation." Bats and stalactites line the ceiling, and its masonry is "perforated by roots resembling anatomical diagrams" (29). The interior seven-foot wide iron tube that once carried water across the High Bridge from the Bronx to Manhattan is now "filled with flakes of rust," writes Solis, and "is so perforated that when walking on the inside, the sunlight enters the dark space through a constellation of small holes resembling a starlit sky" (34). At first blush, Solis's description of the Old Croton Aqueduct as a ruin seems to challenge the narrative of technological progress that Nye identifies as a major thread of American cultural history. Industrial and infrastructural ruins would appear to have no place in a nation that feverishly celebrates its engineering feats, public works, and technological innovations. Urban explorers like Solis might offer an alternative reading of American...


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