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In photos: Ridgewood Reservoir in its industrial heyday

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A location that shaped the trajectory of Brooklyn gets its due

Courtesy of Scott Lynch for Gothamist

Brooklyn was a growing city thirsty for more water sources in the 1850s, so the government of the City of Brooklyn bought the Snedliker’s cornfield and constructed what would become the Ridgewood Reservoir in 1858.

At the same time, the City of Brooklyn began buying up land surrounding the reservoir—now part of Highland Park—to use as a buffer to keep “pollutants generated by cemeteries and garbage plants” out of the 154 million-gallon reservoir, according to the Parks Department. By bringing water to Brooklyn, the reservoir in many ways allowed Brooklyn to become America’s third-largest city and its largest beer producer. It is also the likely namesake of the Ridgewood neighborhood.

The architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, who co-designed Prospect, Central, and many other major city parks, was charged with designing the main drive and concourse for the reservoir’s southern portion in 1894. An iron fence decorated with electric lamps was installed around the reservoir’s perimeter the following year. Shortly after the turn of the century, in 1905 and 1906, Brooklyn acquired the final two parcels of land—local estates—that today comprise Lower Highland Park.

All historic photos from NYC Water/Flickr

While the Ridgewood Reservoir was not formally decomissioned by the Department of Environmental Protection until 1990, it stopped bringing water to Brooklyn in 1959, as its purpose was outmoded by new reservoirs upstate. By 1989, most of the Ridgewood Reservoir had been drained—a move that came only after several drownings in the 1970s. Today, the site has been largely overtaken by nature.

In December, the New York State Historic Review Board unanimously voted to place the reservoir on the New York State Register of Historic Places. The reservoir’s application now moves along to the National Park Service, which will vote in April and is widely expected to approve the designation.

The campaign for the Ridgewood Reservoir’s addition to the register has been fought for years as a community effort, but perhaps most tirelessly by nonprofit NYC H20. “This will protect it for future generations to come to appreciate and to learn and to enjoy its beauty, both its ecological beauty and the engineering and functionality,” NYC H20’s executive director, Matt Malina, testified at the designation hearing, according to NY1.

The designation comes not a moment too soon: In 2014, local activists found out the city had a $6 million plan to cut culverts into the reservoir, both as a preventative against flooding and, possibly, to allow for future development, the Daily News reported at the time. Luckily for fans of the historic reservoir, which has morphed into quite the wildlife refuge over the decades, designation appears to be well within sight.

Following the New York State Historic Review Board’s vote to place the reservoir on the register, NYC H20 uploaded a series of photos to Flickr that show the reservoir in its historic heyday (h/t Ridgewood Social). Relive that history, below.