Walkway Over the Hudson: A History

After 17 years of planning, fund-raising, legal manuevering, and dangerous manual labor, the long-awaited Walkway Over the Hudson opens this month. Here’s how the one-time longest bridge in the world became the crown jewel of the Quadricentennial celebrations

When the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was completed in 1888, it was an international wonder: the world’s longest bridge and the only one of its kind across the Hudson south of Albany. On October 3, this iconic structure will once again command some serious clout as it becomes the longest (and one of the highest) elevated pedestrian parks in the world, not to mention New York’s newest state park — and the Hudson Valley’s only Quadricentennial monument. That’s a lot of superlatives.

Rechristened Walkway Over the Hudson after a complete makeover — new concrete panels that replaced railroad ties, refurbished railings, and in-progress bells and whistles like digital lighting and an elevator — the bridge is as bold and exciting an undertaking now as it was in its original incarnation.

Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge postcardUps and downs: The popular bridge was the subject of this early postcard; below, onlookers watch as firefighters battle the flames during the 1974 fire that ended railroad service across the bridge

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Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge 1974 fireReprinted with permission from Hudson River Bridges by Kathryn W. Burke. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665

Before the bridge became a reality back in the 1800s, people lampooned the idea. It seemed an impossible task to bridge this enormous tidal river. But steel technology and engineering caught up (just around the time the Eiffel Tower was built), making it possible to build a structure that bettered by 100 miles the previous most-direct train route connecting the West and New England. (Interesting aside: The cornerstone was laid in 1871, but the bridge wasn’t completed for 17 more years. It took that long because a recession led to delays. Construction actually started and stopped twice before the final and successful effort began in 1886 and concluded in 1888.)

Transporting everything from coal to circus animals, the span was very busy for a time. But its luster began to fade when another bridge just south of Albany was built in the 1930s. Railroads were losing money and merging, so the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge became expendable. Was it accidentally on purpose that a devastating fire broke out on the span in 1974? We’ll never know for sure.

Afterward the unused bridge became a curiosity or an eyesore, depending on how you looked at it. Eventually, an owner in the Philadelphia area — a front man for the railroad company board, it’s said — got a hold of it, threatening to charge Central Hudson exorbitant rent for using its power lines. As a result, the utility got smart and buried its wiring — at which point the party was over.

Railroad bridge under construction
Railroad bridge under construction

Completed walkway illustrationUnder construction (from top): The bridge at the start of the renovation; workers preparing for the span’s surface; an artist’s rendition of the finished walkway shed

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Illustration courtesy of Bergmann Associates

In the early 1990s, Bill Sepe of Poughkeepsie got the idea of turning the bridge into a pedestrian skyway and started floating the idea in the community — to a mixed reception. He formed Walkway Over the Hudson and, for the price of one dollar, got the title for the bridge from a Pennsylvania man, who had bought the structure from the previous owner on a lark. In 1998, Walkway officially took ownership of the bridge. Mayhem and messiness ensued as volunteers attempted to renovate the structure on their own; at one point, there was a lawsuit with the Town of Lloyd over zoning permits. The idea of turning the bridge into a walkway was beginning to seem even wackier than the idea of building the bridge in the first place.

Which is why we should all be thankful that Pleasant Valley attorney Fred Schaeffer came on board. A longtime proponent of bicycle tourism and the force behind the creation of the area’s rail trails, he assisted in getting Walkway liability insurance and later changed the focus of the project from a volunteer to a professional effort. Since 2004, he has served as chairman of the group, taking business people, politicians, and anyone with an interest out onto the bridge — knowing full well they’d be amazed by the spectacular views south to Mt. Beacon and the Hudson Highlands and north to the Catskills. He filled them in on the bridge’s history and urged them to read Carleton Mabee’s book on the topic, Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its Connecting Rail Lines.

“Everyone thought it was just a rickety old railroad bridge and didn’t have any idea of how well built and historic it is,” says Schaeffer. “There is 120-year-old Carnegie steel on this bridge. This is one of the great world structures.” But his most successful PR tactic was showing people pictures of other bridges that had been converted into pedestrian paths (such as the Chain of Rocks Bridge in Illinois — until the Walkway’s opening, the world’s longest pedestrian bridge at 5,353 feet), as well as an engineer’s rendering of what the walkway would look like when complete. The sketch shows not just a pedestrian and bicyclist’s path, but a place where visitors can lounge with a book and watch the world go by, or enjoy a concert on one of the wider promenade areas, which are outfitted with benches. After seeing these images, “people started realizing it wasn’t not such a crazy dream,” says Schaeffer.

It’s one thing to show something on paper, and quite another to make it happen for real. Walkway executive director Amy Husten particularly credits New York State and the Dyson Foundation, who partnered to contribute generously and make it happen. There was also great support from U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, State Senator Steve Saland, and Scenic Hudson and the Nuhn Chartiable Trust here in Poughkeepsie. Thanks to their efforts, the once-abstract concept is now a tangible attraction, accessible from the intersection of Parker Avenue and Washington Street (in Poughkeepsie) and Haviland Road (in Lloyd).

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And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people. For instance, Mike Duffy, construction consultant for the project, who ensured that work was going full steam whatever the season — or economic climate. “It’s been quite a dance,” says Husten. “Everything has been so perfectly orchestrated.” Even in the middle of winter, ironworkers in long johns and insulated gloves were tethered on the bridge doing metal repair work, while further upstate, concrete panels were being churned out by the Fort Miller Company in Greenwich. The minute that spring arrived in March, the panel layers returned to the bridge to continue their work (they can’t work in winter because the grout won’t set in cold weather). And when the demolition team had to come in to remove the old Central Hudson wiring and insulators, the panel layers stepped aside to let them move forward — without the grousing or infighting you might ordinarily encounter on jobs of this magnitude. Which proves that stepping onto the Walkway really does take you to a higher level.

Rich Collins

Behind the Scenes

Meet: Rich Collins

They call him Captain Drop. Ever since demolition began for the Walkway in May 2008, this native-born Poughkeepsie resident — and sometime mason and carpenter — has sat patiently in a boat on the Hudson in all kinds of weather. A sign on his boat reads, “Bridge Construction Above: DETOUR.” His job is to keep barges, jet skis, kayaks, and assorted river traffic out of harm’s way, to retrieve anything that might fall into the water from above (fortunately, only debris), and to ferry iron workers from shore to the pier scaffolding. He has spent so many hours studying the steel work on the piers that he knows exactly which rivets are sound and which need repair. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that his blue eyes exactly match the water or maybe he’s just been on the river too long.

Even on land, the bridge obsesses him. Collins’s truck is stuffed with sepia photos of the bridge under construction. Of special interest: images of the timber caissons that support the bridge being embedded in river stone as a steam shovel hauls out sand, silt, mud, and gravel — the equivalent of building four 10-story buildings under water. “In 120 years, they haven’t moved one inch. It’s an engineering marvel.”

Diana Gang

Meet: Diana Gang

“Gotta look up. Look ahead, not at your feet!” That’s safety officer Diana Gang’s mantra when greeting visitors to the Walkway while it’s under construction. After all, it can be a little unnerving to walk across a bridge when the safety railings are missing and the drop is 200 feet. Just don’t think about it too much.

With her bright green hardhat and vest, Gang is a constant presence on the bridge, yelling commands over the ever-present beeping sound of a truck backing up with a 20-ton load. As the mother hen — and only woman — in a crew of about 40, the Claverack, Columbia County, resident is never at rest, her eyes darting constantly to make sure everyone is wearing a hard hat and is properly tethered to his lifeline. “No one could survive this fall,” she says matter-of-factly.

Before coming to work on the world’s largest pedestrian walkway in August 2008, Gang worked on one of the world’s largest remediation projects — the GE PCB-removal job upstate. “The hazards here are greater, though,” she says. As are the rewards. “It’s a wonderful thing to work on something that’s going to make a difference. This project is personal. There’s a lot of heart in this bridge.”

Keith Eisgruber

Meet: Keith Eisgruber

Hanging in a “man basket” 200 feet over the Hudson in freezing temperatures and high winds while repairing steel that’s more than a century old. Walking across a narrow beam on a gap in the middle of the bridge with only an iron cable as a banister. Keith Eisgruber does things on a daily basis that most people wouldn’t attempt for any amount of money. But this fourth-generation iron worker (you call them that even though they work with steel) has attitude — and altitude — in his blood.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” says the Highland resident, whose last gig was on the Route 9W bridge interchange of the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge. “My father was in the Local 417 Ironworkers. My grandmother was the first child to cross the Mid-Hudson Bridge because my great-grandfather worked on it.”

Which is not to say that he doesn’t have a healthy respect for heights. “The first time we got on any part of this bridge it was nerve-wracking. I didn’t want to be on it,” he admits. “We’re putting our lives in the hands of the engineers. But we’re all in this together, and when you’re in the brotherhood [of ironworkers], you’re never walking alone.”

Ironworkers were out on the bridge all winter doing the necessary repairs so that the crews could come in the spring and begin laying the massive concrete panels that now serve as the proverbial yellow brick road across the span. Sometimes, it takes them up to 40 minutes to just gain access — sometimes by rappelling — to the spot on the bridge that needs fixing. (Little wonder the cable TV show Project Xtreme filmed an episode here last fall.)

Still, Eisgruber thinks the truck crane operator’s job is the hairiest of all. “He has to move that truck ahead without driving off the edge,” he says, referring to a gap in the center of the bridge that still needed concrete panels laid down as of late August. “You’re on wheels. You gotta make sure that the guys you’re working with put the stuff where it’s supposed to be.”

Fred SchaefferValley vista: Walkway chairman Fred Schaeffer on the bridge with its magnificent views South to the Mid-Hudson Bridge

The Hoopla: Oct. 2-Oct. 4, 2009

It’s really happening: Walkway Over the Hudson opens to the public during a three-day weekend celebration early this month. Rumor has it that Governor David Paterson and his wife, Michelle Paterson, honorary chair of the Quadricentennial, will make an appearance. Here’s the lineup (visit www.walkway.org for updates):

Friday, Oct. 2: 7-10 p.m.: “Out of the Shadows,” an illumination of the walkway. Among the glowing objects will be a 1,000 Points of Light Lantern Release, River of Light Promenade, Moon Glow Hot Air Balloon Display, and a visit from the fireboat J.J. Harvey, all lit up for the occasion. There will also be fireworks. The festivities are viewable from Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie and the Highland Landing Park, among other places.

Saturday, Oct. 3: 9-11 a.m.: Marist College Crew presents a re-creation of the Poughkeepsie Regatta between Roger’s Point in Hyde Park and the Mid-Hudson Bridge. 1-3 p.m.: County executives throw open the gates on both sides of the river, with a knot-tying by City of Poughkeepsie and Town of Lloyd officials. Parade featuring puppets, designed by artists and Dutchess and Ulster community members, of river staples such as the Half Moon and sturgeons. Official grand opening to the general public. 5-9 p.m.: Light show and other festivities. Bring or wear something illuminated.

Saturday, Oct. 3 & Sunday, Oct. 4: Clearwater Music Festival and river cruises, as well as a performance by Arm of the Sea Theater about Henry Hudson. (Sat. in Waryas Park, Poughkeepsie; Sun. in Highland Landing Park, Highland.)

Sunday, Oct. 4: 8 a.m.: Rooftops to Treetops 5K Race across the Walkway sponsored by the Mid-Hudson Road Runners Club. Grand opening of the Walkway loop trail.
Shuttle buses from area parking lots will bring visitors to the bridge.

Poughkeepsie Railroad BridgeReprinted with permission from Hudson River Bridges by Kathryn W. Burke. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665

By the Numbers:

3,500 Number of train cars that once crossed on a daily basis
6,768 Length of bridge in feet (about 1.28 miles)
212 Distance (in feet) that the bridge rises above the water
130 Depth of wood piers under the water (in feet)
35 Years bridge has been out of commission
16 Months it took to convert bridge to walkway
15 Weight of each cement panel (in tons)
973 Number of panels used
$27.1 million: Original fund-raising goal in 2007
$38.8 million: Revised fund-raising goal
$54 million: Amount it would have cost to demolish bridge
$0 Usage fee
267,700 Number of projected annual visits
307 Total number of jobs the project created
100 Percentage of local workers
$727,400 New annual tax revenues for Dutchess and Ulster counties

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