A wise friend of mine has said, "You can work with bikes or you can ride on them. Pick one!" He has absolutely right. The last few months I have been tied up with work and writing and if I got up on a bike at all, it was to write up a review, run an errand, or some other form of "productive" endeavor. But, as it turned out, scheduling had afforded me a little extra time off and I found myself facing a Wednesday with the opportunity to ride and there was a ride that I had been hunkering to do for a while now.
The morning of the ride came cold as heck but dry. In thinking about this ride, I had originally planned it as an automobile trip from my home on Long Island up into Westchester where I would Park in the municipal lot outside the Yonkers Train Station and ride north. Then it dawned on me. Let's make this a car-free, eco-ride. I would take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan, ride my bike to Grand Central Station and then hop the Metro North up to Yonkers and then ride off in exploration. As I considered this option it continued to make more and more sense. With the car in the lot and with this being a solo trip, it would require a round trip effort. I would ride as far in one direction as I could, limited by the need to turn around and return to the car. Without the car issue to contend with I could ride as far as I wanted and then hop the train back to Manhattan and on to Long Island. It seemed an easy decision, this would be bike, train, bike, train, bike, and then repeat.
By this point, you must be wondering what the the trip destination is... The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. This journey had actually started many years before, back in the early days before there was a Pedal Pushers Online. Dan was house hunting and I had gone with him to check out a smallish bungalow style home in Baldwin. It turned out that this was the home of a State Park Ranger whose current assignment had been the Hempstead Lake State Park. He had been transferred up to Westchester to run a novel park that was some 50 yards wide by 30 or so miles long, the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. I am kind of an antiquities, ruins, urban archaeology fan and the idea of riding surrounded by history appealed to me. This was years ago, but now I was finally going to ride the trail.
About the Trail: 1800's, New York City: Manhattan was developing faster than anyone might have predicted and the local water supply was becoming totally inadequate for its population. Cholera and diptheria, both water borne diseases were rampant. Sewage and pollutants were befouling all the local streams and wells. Something had to be done. In 1847 work began to dam the Croton River, which after the construction of the aqueduct carried water from pristine Upstate NY to the thirsty metropolis. The aqueduct consisted of an iron waterway encased in cement and masonry. It laid 30 miles along the shore of the Hudson River from Croton to what was then the outskirts of Manhattan, crossing the East River on a high aqueduct bridge that still stands today, aptly named High Bridge. A water tower was erected directly in line with the bridge to store water pressure and the water eventually pooled in a local reservoir on what is now the great lawn in Central Park. Although this helped the situation the aqueduct rapidly grew insufficient to the demands and another was begun almost as soon as this one was completed. It would forever be known as the Old Croton Aqueduct. It stayed in service delivering water to NYC until 1955. Now it serves as a State Park for most of its length, as a multi use trail.
I caught the trail riding out of the Larkin Plaza outside of the Yonkers Metro North Hudson Line Station and within a few short blocks I found the entrance to the trail and entered heading generally north. The trail itself is actually the top of the aqueduct. It is flat foundation grade concrete, by that I mean it is rough concrete with large aggregate (stones) embedded in it. The surface is mostly level but not smooth like a sidewalk or driveway. It is definitely an off road trail for mountain or cyclocross style bikes. There are areas where the aqueduct is actually buried under the surface and there are packed dirt sections, there are also a few spots where the terrain dips far below the level of the aqueduct and you are actually riding across a valley on a bridge formed by the structure with very steep and unguarded drop offs on the sides.
In its days of use, water took 22 hours to make the journey from the Croton Dam to Manhattan. A dedicated mountain bike rider could do it in less time. This however was a lazy day of riding for fun and sightseeing. I passed a few folks along the way, mostly joggers and a few dog walkers but surprisingly few riders. I was however rewarded with several interesting relics of the aqueducts glory days. Every mile or so there are ventilators, many covered by graffiti, but as you escape the urban environment they become surprisingly graffiti free.
There is also access to ruins of The Untermyer Estate that lead to its more intact Grecian style rotunda, and a manor house guarded by two masonary lions and an entrance gate. It is actually the abandoned western half of the current Untermyer Park. You also pass an armory and several sluice gate structures, used for emergency emptying of the aqueduct when repairs were necessary. Although mostly hidden from view, the Hudson does make appearances on your left and the vistas are spectacular.
If you have done your homework you can also see many of the structures associated with the aqueduct along the returning train ride. High Bridge and the water tower being the easy ones. Since the aqueduct was gravity fed, the ride north is slightly uphill all the way but it is barely noticeable as the grade is so slight. It makes for a great casual cruise or a challenging one if you push it. I bailed from the trail at Irvington, about one third of the way to the reservoir to catch the train as I was unfamiliar with the rest of the route, distances and train schedules. But don't worry, I'll be finishing up the trip and sharing it with you on the next installment of this journey of exploration.