Walk This Way

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

Photographs by Fred Schaeffer unless otherwise denoted

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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

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.

» Continued on next page


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