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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Behind the Scenes: 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.”
Behind the Scenes: 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.”
Behind the Scenes: 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.”