Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. — Earlier this summer, I took a table at an open-air cafe in Midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park and asked the waiter to bring me a glass of vintage New York City tap water. I was celebrating the successful completion of several expeditions along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which lines the eastern side of the Hudson River and has everything to do with the elixir I held up to the light, then drank in one gulp.
These days, New York's water comes from a variety of sources. But in 1842, when the city was bursting its seams, a tinderbox for fires and stricken with cholera bred in contaminated ponds and wells, Westchester County's Croton River -- little more than a leak compared with the big, broad Hudson it feeds -- poured in to save Gotham.
The 41-mile aqueduct that brought Croton water to Manhattan tunneled through mountains, forged deep ravines and crossed a high, arched bridge over the Harlem River, finally emptying into a reservoir that once stood on the current site of Bryant Park, just about where I was sitting. The Old Croton Aqueduct was the engineering marvel of its day, a precursor of the channel that started carrying water from the Owens River east of the Sierra Mountains to Los Angeles in the early 20th century.
Decommissioned in 1965, the Croton Aqueduct now serves the public in another way, thanks to a path that runs atop it, taking walkers, runners, cross-country skiers and cyclists through some of the prettiest scenery in the lower Hudson River Valley -- past sites such as Lyndhurst mansion, the wide Tappan Zee Bridge and Washington Irving's home at Sunnyside -- and along the main streets of towns settled by the Dutch around 1700. The northernmost part of the trail is a New York state historic park.
Technically, you could follow the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail from its starting point at Croton Gorge County Park near the hamlet of Croton-on-Hudson, through Westchester County and the Bronx to Manhattan. On that ambitious, 41-mile hike, you'd feel underfoot the country yielding to the city and see a full range of 19th century hydraulic features devised by aqueduct engineer John B. Jervis, including bridges, towers, reservoirs, ventilator shafts and masonry weirs that facilitated periodic draining of the waterway. But the last part of the trek traverses dodgy, unlovely streets in the Bronx and upper Manhattan, making it suitable only for urban habitues.
Or you could explore pieces of the path in Westchester County, as I did by taking Hudson Line Metro-North commuter trains from Grand Central Station in Manhattan to Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington or Tarrytown, all within easy access of the trail. That way, you'd arrive at a town, walk a few miles to the next and catch the train back to Grand Central, an ideal respite from the big city for visitors who don't have cars.
That way, you'd also get to sample the varied charms of Dutch-settled Hudson River hamlets that grew into leafy, affluent New York City suburbs. Some, like Irvington and Sleepy Hollow, remain bastions of blue-blooded Rockefellers and Vanderbilts; others, like Polish-Ukrainian Hastings and Italian Dobbs Ferry, gradually took on a more ethnically mixed, urban character, waxing and waning under the same pressures that beset the metropolis at their doorstep.
I discovered the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail when I lived in New York in the '80s and '90s. In Tarrytown one Easter, I met my parents, who had driven from Washington, D.C., to join me for a visit to Philipsburg Manor, an estate owned by a Dutch family that had stayed loyal to the British in the Revolutionary War. Nearby, at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where a headless horseman is said to ride, we found the trail. We didn't have time to walk it, but it stayed in my mind.
A few years later, I went back upriver to tour Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate in the Pocantico Hills above Tarrytown, with its famed collection of modern sculpture gathered by the late Nelson A. Rockefeller, a former governor of New York. That time, I walked one of the ritziest sections of the path, skirting the Rockefeller State Park Preserve and Sleepy Hollow Country Club, then caught the train at Scarborough Station back to Manhattan.
But now that I've explored broader stretches of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, I'd have to say my favorite sections are around Dobbs Ferry, partly because they remind me so much of Webster Groves, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, and partly because I walked them with Mavis Cain, president of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail.