Commentary & Opinion
12:50 pm
Sat June 28, 2014

David Nightingale: Jonas Waldo Smith

The Chief Engineer on the Catskill Aqueduct was Jonas Waldo Smith, born in 1861 in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Now 2000 years ago, Sextus Julius Frontinus–one-time governor of the minor Roman province of Britain–had been appointed (in his retirement) Water Commissioner for the city of Rome. This was a position of consular rank that entailed responsibility for all Rome's water, conveyed into the capital via half a dozen major aqueducts, like Aqua Marcia, Aqua Claudia, and others.

There's no way that Waldo Smith's position was a consular one like that of Frontinus, and his name is less well-known. One wonders if any NY schoolboys today, as they drink from a water fountain or frolic under fire hydrants on a hot summer's afternoon, know what he did. Indeed the person who answered the phone at the engineering offices a few years ago asked me “Who's he?”

I have always admired Waldo Smith. While many residents of the Olive area 100 years ago might well have cursed him, he was the hard-working engineer who labored for nearly 2 decades making sure that his whole design worked. In that sense, I've always compared him with Frontinus.

Waldo Smith had graduated in engineering from MIT and worked as an Assistant Engineer in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In 1903, at the age of 42, he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Aqueduct Commissioners of New York City, and the rest is history.

Since we are no longer allowed to walk on the aqueduct, let's take a fish-eye view of what he did.

Suppose a little guppy, having eluded the fishing boats at Ashokan, enters Waldo Smith's pipeline by mistake. After a dizzying passage past the 5 MW hydro-power turbines (actually added later) and after going through a smooth constriction in the 14 foot diameter tube – designed by Waldo Smith to utilize Bernoulli's theorem to yield water speed – the fish would travel south at a steady rate, dropping down a height of about 1 foot / mile, as in the Roman aqueducts. In contrast to the Roman ones, however, the view for the fish would never be open sky, but the upper half of a mortared 14' concrete pipe, which, if empty, one could drive a small car down.  The pipe is not full, with no pressure, but is like a man-made river. Sometimes the pipe would tunnel through mountains, all the while maintaining it's steady gradient; and instead of being carried over valleys on magnificent arched stone aqueducts, a la Frontinus, sometimes the water would plunge over a concrete precipice, falling vertically, continuing in Waldo Smith's `pressure tunnels' or siphons, beneath rivers and buildings.

Under those high pressures that come with depth, familiar to any deep-sea diver, the fish would travel on, beneath the Rondout at High Falls, beneath the Wallkill at New Paltz, rising again vertically to exactly the right height, and then continuing steadily downhill cross country, plunging very deeply under the Hudson near West Point. Rising again it continues by gravity to the final reservoir at Hillsdale, elevation ~295', not all that lower than when it began at the Ashokan (which was at elevation 585'). Only about 2 days has elapsed for our guppy's 75 mile journey, and it can then choose any of 3 massive tunnels beneath the city to rise up, under gravity still, to the Manhattan apartment of its choice – provided that apartment is less than 295'  in elevation.

Frontinus is remembered largely on account of his book de Aquae Ductu. But, as cyclists and joggers near the Ashokan reservoir know, hidden in a glade of tall pines not far from the Ashokan is a massive monument in honor of this modest engineer's beautiful design for the watering of New York City.