Trail of the Month: January 2010
New York's Walkway Over the Hudson
Built in 1888, the 1.28-mile Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge launched out across the Hudson River in New York. Considered a technological wonder, the mammoth structure towered 212 feet above the water and became the longest railroad bridge in the world. It connected downtown Poughkeepsie on the east bank and Lloyd on the west, providing an important link for trains carrying Pennsylvania coal to factories in New England. At its peak, the route serviced 3,500 train cars a day.
After a fire severely damaged the tracks in 1974, though, nearby communities debated whether to tear down the railroad relic. The bridge sat idle for nearly 20 years before local advocate Bill Sepe began promoting the idea of restoring the landmark as a pedestrian walkway.
In 1992 Sepe founded the nonprofit Walkway Over the Hudson, or Walkway, to raise construction funds to preserve and refit the bridge. Three years later his fledgling organization bought the bridge for $1 from Vito Moreno, who had acquired it from Gordon Schreiber Miller, who had first bought the bridge from Conrail in 1984, also for $1. That bargain was the easy part. Sepe and a crew of fellow Walkway supporters next set to work repairing the bridge—initially, using entirely volunteer labor.
Progress proved slow at first. Yet luckily the bridge had an invaluable promotional advantage: it was impossible to miss. Sepe's campaign fed off that visibility, of passers-by looking up and marveling at the bridge, and started to win more converts to the cause.
Among those early recruits was Fred Schaeffer, a local lawyer who now volunteers as chairman of Walkway. "I have three hobbies," he says. "One is history, one's photography, and the other is bicycling." The bridge was a perfect fit for all three.
Schaeffer had already been taking photos of the Hudson River and the bridge on his bicycle rides. But when he joined Sepe for a tour on top of the bridge in 1993, he was instantly sold on the restoration project. "I just fell in love with the view," he says. "It takes your breath away. The first thought that came through my mind was, 'Everyone's gotta see this!'"
Over the next few years, Schaeffer helped grow Walkway's coalition of members. The biggest breakthrough came in 2007 when they won a generous commitment from the Dyson Foundation for $2 million to fund a full inspection and design study of what a pedestrian walkway would look like.
Inspectors estimated that demolishing the structure would cost around $55 million. Renovating the bridge, on the other hand, would cost far less, about $38 million. So with a green light for construction, work began in 2008 to create a recreational milestone—as high as the George Washington Bridge heading into Manhattan, and with unobstructed, 20-mile views of the Hudson River and New York countryside.
Walkway had ambitiously hoped to open the bridge to the public in October 2009 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's first exploration of the river. They finished right on schedule, and right on budget.
On October 3, huge crowds swelled the bridge to celebrate its grand opening. "It was awesome," says Erik Kulleseid, deputy commissioner for open space protection with New York State Parks. "We had 40 to 50,000 people there. We thought we were going out on a limb projecting the bridge would get 267,000 annual visitors, and we had 300,000 in the first month and a half! It's been extraordinary."
Walkway still owns the bridge and continues to act as a friends group. But the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation now officially administers the bridge as the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. They built restrooms at both ends, yet they've since had to add port-o-johns to cope with all the visitors.
"We've been overwhelmed with cars [in Poughkeepsie]," says Schaeffer. "We have an 80-car parking lot, and it fills up by 9 a.m."
The bridge has a magnetic quality, says Schaeffer. People come to experience the walk in the sky, and then they go home and bring back their family and more friends—who then go back and bring back their own friends. Word of mouth helped sell the project. Now all the chatter is keeping lots full and cameras clicking, and plenty of restaurants packed in Poughkeepsie.
The views and popularity may be dizzying, but New York's newest park couldn't be easier—or safer—to enjoy. The park is 25 feet across, with ample railings and several lookouts on either side. It's open year-round from 7 a.m. to sunset pending weather conditions (dangerous winds closed it briefly in December, for example), ADA-compliant and free to the public. On the Poughkeepsie side, as well, the bridge is less than a half-mile from the Poughkeepsie Amtrak/Metro-North Station.
"The bridge is a tremendous link between the east and west sides of the Hudson," says Kulleseid. "It's a tourist asset. It's an alternate transportation asset. It just shows the power of a great idea to motivate people and get great things accomplished."
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