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Aqueduct Festival Celebrates An Engineering Marvel

OSSINING, N.Y. — When Carl Grimm, an architect, guides tours to the Ossining weir built on the Old Croton Aqueduct, visitors quickly notice his admiration for the 41-mile brick tunnel that for more than a century transported Westchester water to New York City.

“It’s really an engineering marvel,” Grimm said Saturday morning, before starting the tour that opened the activities of the seventh annual Aquefest, the weekend festival that is celebrating the Old Croton Aqueduct in six river towns - Yonkers, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Sleepy Hollow, Irvington and Ossining.

Grimm, Sara Kelsey and Karen Schatzel, members of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the organization hosting the festival, briefed the visitors on the history of the aqueduct, before Grimm took them inside the weir chamber.

Kelsey explained that the aqueduct, built from 1837 to 1842, was a response to New York City’s growing need for water. They city’s wells got polluted, and its population suffered with epidemics, filth and fires.

Grimm added that Irish immigrants made for most of the labor, working for half the standard wages.

“If you are Irish, you are taking advantage of it,” Grimm said, in what seemed his characteristic way to relate the aqueduct history to the visitors.

The weir itself was built only in 1882. A loose iron gate would shut down the aqueduct and divert the water to the nearby Sing Sing Kill, allowing workers access to the aqueduct whenever it needed repair.

“If you are a contractor, you know that things happen,” Grimm said.

Inside the weir, only a small section of the aqueduct is open to the public, enough though for one to grasp the 8.5 feet high and 7.5 feet wide horseshoe-shaped tunnel that smoothly descends 13 inches per mile and runs over bridges and under many historical sites.

Moved only by gravity, water used to travel at a slow speed, taking more than a day to arrive at New York City, Grimm said.

Paul Mackin and Bob Yankou, of Mount Pleasant, both said that they were impressed with the aqueduct.

“I am amazed that they were able to build something with that kind of precision at that point of time,” Yankou said.

The aqueduct ceased operation in 1955, replaced by a newer and higher-capacity water system.

After the tour, Grimm took some visitors to the Ossining visitor's center to watch a movie about the aqueduct. Stopping under "Ossining’s famous double arch," he ran his hands over the stones at the base of the aqueduct’s bridge.

“Each stone has been here since 1842, and it works,” he said, then showed the archway of a passage built specially to appease a farmer, furious that the aqueduct cut his land in half.

The Old Croton Aqueduct displaced around 200 families, most farmers, generating many lawsuits. Before the tour started, Schatzel mentioned that some litigation took 100 years to be resolved.

“If you are a lawyer, you can imagine the billing hours,” Grimm said.

Also on Saturday, Sleepy Hollow's Aquefest featured guide walks on the old aqueduct trail and musical performances, while in Yonkers kids could see the animals from the Greenburgh Nature Center, make instruments from recyclables and join the Bash the Trash parade.

The festival continues Sunday in Irvington, Dobbs Ferry and Hastings.

For more information on the Aquefest, visit http://www.aqueduct.org/aquefest .

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