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

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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

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).

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.

» Go behind the scenes with the Walkway’s workers


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