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The Lost Reservoir of NYC
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Forgotten Reservoir Deep In The Concrete Jungle

Old New York was a very different place from the NYC of today. Back in the old days the city had to come up with solutions to support one of the largest communities in the world and provide its people with basic needs that seem trivial today. Amenities we probably take for granted today like  getting clean water were once very challenging problems for folks in the big apple. New York City had to bring in civil engineers to help supply the city with clean water supplies.

Out of this need came the construction of The Ridgewood Reservoir. The Ridgewood Reservoir in New York’s Highland Park is a 50+ acre natural oasis that straddles the border of Brooklyn and Queens. It was built in 1859 to supply the once independent city of Brooklyn with high quality water.


Photo by John Alvarez


During this time the city was rapidly outgrowing its local water supplies. This put a strain not only on the cities inhabitants, but businesses based in the area. NYC leaders thought it was failing to attract business firms that would have moved to Brooklyn if it had a reliable water source like other parts of the city at the time.


Photo via H20 NYC


The city needed to find new water sources to support its growing population. Various sources were proposed. One of the Manhattan’s main water sources, The Croton River about 30 miles north of the city, was thought to be inadequate to New York City’s future so would not be available to Brooklyn. The Bronx River was both inadequate and difficult of access. Wells near Brooklyn were inadequate both in quantity and quality. The only solution was to tap the many small streams in Long Island and conduct their water to Brooklyn to be lifted into an elevated reservoir.


Photo by John Alvarez


The reservoir was built in Snediker’s Cornfield on a hilltop near Evergreen Cemetery. Ground was broken for the reservoir on July 11, 1856 and water was first raised on November 18, 1858.

The water supply for the reservoir consisted of six streams in what is now Queens and Nassau Counties: Jamaica Stream (Baisley Pond), Simonson’s Stream, Clear Stream, Valley Stream, Pine’s Stream, and Hempstead Stream (Hempstead Lake). This water was carried in a 12-mile-long masonry conduit, called the Ridgewood Aqueduct, to a pumping station. There, steam-powered pumps forced the water up through a reinforced tube into the high reservoir where it was held. By 1868 the Ridgewood Reservoir held an average of 154.4 million gallons (584,000 m3) daily, enough to supply Brooklyn for ten days at that time.


Ridgewood Reservoir pumping station 1859, NYPL digital collections



Reservoirs of NYC

Photo by John Alvarez


In 1898, Brooklyn merged with the City of Greater New York, thus gaining access to New York City’s water supply system. Ridgewood Reservoir was expensive to operate because of the need for pumping and was slowly made obsolete by expansion of New York City’s Catskill and Delaware water systems. The Ridgewood Reservoir became a backup reservoir in 1959.

The Reservoir was ultimately decommissioned in 1989. Since then, nature took its course in a case of ecological succession and a forest has grown in the reservoir basins with a freshwater pond right in the middle.


Photo by John Alvarez


Photo by John Alvarez


The birth of the woodlands that lie inside the reservoir were created when the basins were drained during decommissioning. The bottom of the basin floors were lined with a mixture of clay and earth to keep the water contained. With the basin floors exposed, seeds and spores brought in by wind, water, and animals struggled to get a foothold. These seeds carpeted the basin floor creating the ground layer. Over time, some of these plants died, helping create a thin layer of soil for vegetation to grow. Eventually small trees grew creating a tree canopy. With this upper layer the forest was born right in the heart of the concrete jungle.

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