A National Monument
By Pedro Quiroga Jiménez, Photos by Courtesy Artist Archive Personal
The recent proclamation of Havana's historic aqueduct system, considered one of the seven wonders of Cuban engineering, as a National Monument, placed the work of engineer Francisco de Albear in its rightful spot. The decision of Cuba's National Monument Commission includes the first major hydraulic project by Spaniards in the New World: the Zanja Real, begun in 1566 to bring the waters of the Almendares River to the Bay of Havana.
The system also included the Fernando VII Aqueduct, inaugurated in 1835 to be the first to provide water to the city through pipes. Most of the recreational estates established along its course made use of the system.
Finally, it is also comprised the Francisco de Albear Aqueduct, a project distinguished with the Gold Medal of the 1878 Paris World Exposition, where it was considered a 19th Century engineering masterwork.
Although it is more than a century old, the monumental Albear Aqueduct still provides water for 12% of Havana's population along 16 kilometres through the use of gravity. Since Havana became in 1540 the port of call for the Royal Fleet carrying the treasures of America to Spain, providing water to Havana was a priority for the Spanish Crown, but it was not until 1566 that construction of the Zanja Real started. After a number of difficulties, well known Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli, builder of the Morro Castle, took the helm of construction in 1591 and finished a year later. The Zanja Real, the first aqueduct built by the Spaniards in America, brought river water to the population through its branches, ending in the Callejon del Chorro in the Cathedral Square.
For more than two centuries the people of Havana used that aqueduct, but with time it was overwhelmed by the needs of a growing population, besides running next to an open channel which was considered unhealthy.
Planning and building a new supply system was the task assigned to Cuban Francisco de Albear, colonel of the Corps of Engineers of the Spanish Army and chairman of the Public Works Committee of Cuba.
Albear started what was to become his most significant work: to get the water from several springs near Vento, on the Almendares River, and bring it to the city.
The apparently simple task was complicated due to the dissimilar disposition of the springs, separated by the river banks and a gully.
The works started in 1856 under the direction of Francisco de Albear, but progress was extremely slow due to the scarcity of available funds caused by the disturbances of the Independence War begun in 1868.
The colossal supply system took 45 years to complete and Francisco de Albear, infected with malaria, died on October 23, 1887 and so was not able to oversee the final stage of the project. The project received prizes at the 1876 International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and in Paris in 1878.
The system's relevant components are the Vento Storage Pond, the great pipe - 42 inches in diameter - and the tunnel across the Almendares River. The pipes brought 120,000 cubic meters of water to Havana.
Other outstanding storage reservoirs are in Palatino, in Cerro municipality, with capacity to store 36 million litres of water each.
The preservation of those old structures more than a hundred years later is proof of the project's excellence and is considered an example by contemporary builders. Above all in these times, when Cuba is constantly threatened by drought, the services provided by the Albear Aqueduct to the largest city on the island are well deserved tributes to the genius of its engineer.