In the early 19th century, New York City grew faster and larger than any other city in the Western Hemisphere. Like most American cities of the time, New York suffered from an unreliable and polluted water supply. Terrible fires and recurring epidemics of yellow fever and cholera periodically devastated the city. In 1834 the state legislature approved a plan to use the Croton River as the city's water supply. Construction began in 1837 to build the Croton Dam, a 41-mile-long conduit, 114 stone culverts, numerous bridges and embankments, and reservoirs at Central Park and 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (now Bryant Park). The Croton Aqueduct opened with great fanfare on July 4, 1842. The gravity-fed system, completed at a cost of about $13.5 million, was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.
The Croton Aqueduct stretched 41 miles from Croton Dam, through Westchester County and the Bronx, and into Manhattan. Most of the property which became the park known as "Aqueduct Lands" was acquired by condemnation between 1837 and 1838, with additional parcels annexed in 1895, 1953, and 1973. In 1930 the Department of Parks was given surface rights to the lands held by the Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity. Restrictions limited development to playground use and to light construction and planting.
The "shoestring" park--so called for its long and skinny shape--was developed in the 1930s and 1940s with paved paths, game tables, benches, handball courts, shuffleboard courts, and three playgrounds. The playground at Morton Place opened in 1947. Both street and playground were named for Thomas Morton, who bought part of the Benjamin Berrian farm in 1855. The Old Croton Aqueduct was closed permanently in 1965 and was listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1974. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992, on the 150th anniversary of the New York Water Supply System.
In 1998 Council Member Adolfo Carrion Jr. funded the $650,000 reconstruction of Morton Playground. The playground design features sculpted beavers that serve as spray showers as well as a colored concrete map of the route of the Aqueduct, depicting landmarks along the former water route. The renovated basketball courts have new surfacing and hoops, and a new steel gate, adorned with a sculpture of Morton the Cat, protects the entrance.