New York City’s Kensico Dam is a titanic monument chiseled from a single block of stone. Yet it hides mountains away from the busy intersections and commercial hotbeds of the boroughs. From afar, one could spot it from the tip of Manhattan, only with a pair of binoculars and tickets to the observation deck atop One World Trade Center. At closer range, the Ford SUVs near the dam, branded with New York City Department of Environmental Protection decals, might seem out of place. Despite its location, the dam is as much a part of New York City as any high-rise building. In truth, the city could not survive without it. The Kensico Dam is New York’s water spigot, and the county-flooding volume of water it manages, as well as the struggles and sacrifices undertaken to erect it, spells the destiny of the city’s people.
The dam, at a glance, might be mistaken for an obnoxious turn-of-the-century work of public art. Anchored into the earth on both ends, it conveys raw might. Its enormity contrasts with the low-rise parks, homes, and cascading basins nearby. From its masonry foundation, the dam soars hundreds of feet up towards the sky. A bumpy wall of granite, the stacked stones that constitute its facade almost seem ripe for climbing, as some risk-takers have attempted. Accompanying its presence, the indistinct voices of children echo as they ride their bikes on the plaza at its base. The scent of greasy fries drifts from nearby food trucks on a summer day. This nonchalant environment–reminiscent of childhood–is but a foil for the utility and history of the structure.
When the dam rose with immigrant hands at the outset of the twentieth century, it was hailed as an infrastructural feat rivaled by the Panama Canal (Brenner). At the time, New York City’s rising immigrant population and pace of industrialization increased the need for clean and reliable drinking water. But water quality and supply issues have existed since the city’s settlement. For one, the island of Manhattan sits in saltwater, so centuries of inhabitants relied on groundwater wells for potable water. There was no means of safely discarding human waste while sourcing enough water for the masses, so ponds and wells became contaminated. In the early 1800s, an epidemic of yellow fever caused by polluted water in Manhattan pipes killed hundreds and forced nearly 40% of the city’s population to flee (Schifman). Thirty years later, an outbreak of cholera killed thousands and caused another panicked third of the population to leave (Schifman). Water limitations and unsustainable development also caused massive fires that burned uncontrollably. These human disasters threatened the city’s existence. When the Croton Aqueduct was built to pipe untouched water from upstate, the city found an initial solution to its water troubles (Schifman).
However, when New York outgrew the supply of the Croton Aqueduct, the city kept trekking north. The city’s public water board sought new land to serve as a basin for the flowing waters of the upstate Catskill Mountains to drain into (NYC Department of Environmental Protection). They chose a vast, treeless valley in Westchester and Putnam counties to serve as the terminal reservoir. New aqueducts, the Catskill and Delaware, were constructed throughout the twentieth century; sets of wide concrete pipes traversed thick forests, high Catskills, and the depths of the Hudson River, using nothing but gravity to outflow billions of gallons of water from upstate reservoirs. Downstream, the deep body of water was dammed at Kensico, replacing a smaller dam and reservoir that operated on the Croton line. But the hamlet of Kensico, namesake of the future water supply system, stood in the way. The expansive area–ancestral lands of the indigenous Siwanoy–was purchased via eminent domain. Though some residents and property owners were defiant, the city demolished churches, homes, and stores, and eventually the small community was desolate in the shadow of derricks and granite atop the rising dam.
The newly-formed Kensico Reservoir held up to thirty billion gallons of freshwater, later treated with fluoride and ultraviolet light to kill pathogens when federal water quality standards were codified (NYC Department of Environmental Protection). A public works project for the ages, it would expand southern New York’s public water availability to Westchester and Putnam. It now renders almost all of the city’s water–every faucet, toilet, fountain, and hydrant in the five boroughs (Brenner). With these basic needs met, urban development in New York City thrived. While other industrializing cities throughout the country kept digging wells on valuable property, New York built vertically on a smaller footprint. A reliable yet unobtrusive water distribution system made the city conducive to rapid and diverse economic growth.
New York has had its fair share of disasters–the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the blackouts and unrest of 1977 and 2003, and the September 11 attacks, to name a few. Each of these events highlighted the importance of public utilities and services–water, electricity, and emergency. After the 9/11 attacks, county and city officials believed that the dam was a potential terrorist target and closed the road that ran across its crest. In their thinking, structures of public interest were targeted by terrorists who knew that their destruction could destabilize society. A catastrophic breach of the Kensico Dam could send waves as high as seventy feet barreling through nearby communities, destroying everything in its path and leaving millions of people thirsty (Lungariello; White). It would lead to unmitigated fires, starvation, chaos, and destruction–easily one of the worst disasters in human history. From September 11, 2001 to May 2012, two-thirds of the dam was hidden from public view.
Today, the road is open to pedestrians, but time’s impact on the structure is apparent. The dam’s concrete pavilions, stained with water, invite pedestrians onto the road like a foyer from a bygone era. Its length generates a mirage upon the cracked pavement, lined on either side with weathered granite walls that are grimy to the touch. Upstream, the glassy reservoir shimmers in the sun; the air smells damp. Looking down onto the plaza, the people below are ant-sized–unaware of the mammoth dam as they play soccer, ride bicycles, and picnic. This vision of disrepair atop the dam and apathy among its visitors is a metaphor for people who take the conveniences of modern life for granted. When does one care about electricity? When it is off. When does one care about water? When the tap has run dry. There is no more powerful testament to a thing’s importance than the crisis its absence creates. The Kensico Dam’s utility is easy to overlook but difficult to live without.
A public education campaign on the history of Kensico Dam would raise New Yorkers’ appreciation of its infrastructural marvels and the sacrifices that created modern waterworks. The ancestors whose disease-stricken deaths highlighted issues with the water supply, citizens of Kensico who lost their community, toiling stonemasons who died in accidents during its construction–these individuals were not victims but martyrs for industrial civilization (White).
The city’s water authority should use the New York Public Library’s extensive digital archives of Kensico’s construction for a social media campaign: photographs, maps, and other visuals documenting the changing landscape could emphasize Kensico’s uniqueness at a time when massive public works projects were rare. The campaign could present the well-documented timeline of New York’s water system–from colonial times to present–with the city and region’s pace of industrialization. Since this water infrastructure spans past the city and Westchester County’s boundaries–reaching into generations of New Yorkers up north–educating all New Yorkers on the history of their drinking water would show that geography is destiny.