When New York’s water came from 42nd Street

This photo, of what looks like a pretty ordinary day in 1875, captures the corner of  Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Hey, what happened to the main branch of the New York Public Library?

Before that Beaux-Arts gem was built, the city’s first distributing reservoir took up the site. This reservoir held New York City’s first fresh, clean supply of water, which originated in Westchester’s Croton River.


The reservoir, built in 1842, is pretty impressive. Walls 50 feet high and 25 feet thick were topped by a promenade; it could hold 20,000,000 gallons.

Once the Croton River became a dam, the city didn’t need a reservoir on 42nd Street anymore. It was demolished in 1899 to make way for the iconic library building that greets New Yorkers today.

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21 Responses to “When New York’s water came from 42nd Street”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, a novel that takes place in NYs 1880s has its culminating scenes along the reservoir, plus other scenes around the city. It’s a gripping read


  2. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Caleb Carr is also the son of Lucian Carr, a friend of Jack Kerouc’s, who was involved in the slaying of a drug dealer in the 50s. Lucian Carr died a few years ago.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Lucian Carr is an interesting figure among the Beats. A good subject for another post perhaps.

  4. Dennis A. Purcell / Austin, TX Says:

    I have been reading about the reservoir in a 1994 book “The Waterworks” by E.L. Doctorow. As a former architect and amateur engineer, I find this structure to be both beautiful and amazing. Imagine holding all of that water in the middle of the city before the ABS, PVC and TPO liners we have available today. An engineering marvel! Also, the simple beauty of the sloped walls and those corner turrets covered with ivy is great architecture. What would a stroll around the water at 50′ above the street level meant to a pair of love birds in the 1880’s? Just imagine! I would love to see more photos of this structure. Information anyone? Thanks, Dennis . . .

  5. Donna Muller Says:

    I was at the NY Library yesterday, and read that it took 500 men several years working full time to dismantle that reservoir.

  6. A 1940s view outside the Public Library « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] a look at what occupied this corner before 1911, when the building […]

  7. Jim Says:

    The Croton river didn’t “become” a dam; it had a dam built on it. A succession of dams, actually — and the first one (1842) was built in tandem with the 42nd Street reservoir, not after it. Otherwise there would have been no way to divert river water into the aqueduct.

  8. Manhole covers that have something to say « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] water was stored in a massive reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, where the New York Public Library is […]

  9. The story behind the New York Public Library lions « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Twin male lions have been guarding the entrance of the New York Public Library’s majestic main branch since the Beaux Arts building opened at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in May 1911. […]

  10. Robert P. Fowler Says:

    The photo is perhaps more recent, as you note an electrified street lamp to the right… 1885?

  11. An 1835 fire burns a quarter of New York City « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] it showed the need for a modern water-supply system—resulting in the opening of the Croton Water Works and reservoir on 42nd Street just seven years […]

  12. Michael Keniston Says:

    The lions outside the library are named Leo Aster and Leo Lenox.

  13. The lovely bronze lampposts guarding Bryant Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Park—known as Reservoir Square in the 19th century, thanks to the massive distributing reservoir that was once on the site of the New York Public Library Building—has lots of contemporary attractions: an ice rink, holiday shopping kiosks, and a sweet carousel […]

  14. Dean Says:

    I loved the Alienist by Caleb Carr. I read it when I lived on 12th Street and 6th Ave. I went to all the buildings he described in such amazing detail. He chose a lot of buildings and locations that still exist. The most gruesome scene in the movie takes place at the Croton Reservoir.

  15. The elegant artist studios overlooking Bryant Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] One 12-story studio building constructed in 1900-1901 still stands on Sixth Avenue and 40th Street, at the southwest corner of the recently renamed Bryant Park (until the 1880s, it had been known as Reservoir Square). […]

  16. Three centuries at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the far left? There’s no New York Public Library Building yet; the year this photo was taken, the Croton Reservoir would be torn down—the wall looks like part of the reservoir […]

  17. A dazzling City Hall fountain sprays Croton water | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] It took five years to build the Croton Aqueduct—the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to Manhattan through a series of pipes as well as receiving and distributing reservoirs. […]

  18. Rocky remains of Central Park’s 1842 reservoir | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the grand Distributing Reservoir, designed in the popular Egyptian Revival style, the Receiving Reservoir was simple and practical,” states […]

  19. Loveliness in turn of the century Bryant Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in 1913, just a few years after the New York Public Library building opened on the site where the Croton distributing reservoir once stood (hence the park’s original name, Reservoir […]

  20. The Central Park spring that provided water for a forgotten village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in 1842, water from the nearby Receiving Reservoir wasn’t accessible; it was piped to the Distributing Reservoir on 42nd Street and then to downtown homes and […]

  21. This ‘offensive’ 1873 portrait of the Vanderbilts reveals their place in Gilded Age society | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] In 1873, Guy got the commission of his life: William Henry Vanderbilt asked him to paint a portrait of his family. The portrait would be done in William’s spacious Italianate brownstone home on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street (below), across from the Croton Reservoir. […]

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