Finished in 1888, the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was a vital link in connecting the coal fields of Pennsylvania with industries in New England. At the time of its construction, it was considered the longest steel span in the world and an engineering marvel. It also was the first bridge built across the Hudson River south of Albany.
The bridge’s importance lessened in the twentieth century, due in part to a decline in manufacturing in the Northeast, the construction of the interstate highway system, and increased costs to maintain the span. New bridges and tunnels across the Hudson and East Rivers also contributed to its downfall. Following the absorption of the New Haven Railroad by Penn Central Railroad in 1968, traffic over the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge dropped even further because of Penn Central’s policy of abandoning less profitable routes. By the spring of 1974, “only one train crossed the bridge daily, round trip, and it was ‘poorly patronized” (Mabee 244).
After taking control of the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge in 1969, Penn Central halted inspections of the span and reduced the amount of maintenance and repairs it undertook on it (Mabee, 244). During the winter of 1973 to 1974, the steel pipeline used to feed fire hydrants on the bridge was not drained. When it froze and burst in cold weather, it was not repaired. To lessen their financial morass, Penn Central also eliminated the watchmen who walked across the bridge around the clock and let go of the bridge maintenance crew. Protests were initiated by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, who stated that “Penn Central was disregarding its responsibility both to its employees and to the public” (Mabee, 245). This neglect would prove nearly fatal for the bridge.
On May 8, 1974, at 12:42 pm, a freight train—the only regular eastbound train that day—crossed over the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge. A spark from it presumably caused the fire that would effectively end the span’s use by the railroad. According to Fire Captain Thomas Ringwood, it “may not have been the biggest fire we’ve ever had in the city, but it was the most difficult.” The fire was not detected right away because of the lack of watchmen. When firemen arrived, all they could see “was a cloud of black smoke that hung over the Poughkeepsie end of the bridge. On the bridge deck, wooden railroad ties were smoldering, and next to them, wooden walkways were burning, fanned by a moderate breeze” (Mabee, 246).
The immediate issue the firemen faced was the need to get water to the top, no easy feat because of the height of the bridge and the failure to replace the burst pipes (Mabee, 246). The fire destroyed 700 feet of track. Immediately after the blaze, Penn Central officials estimated it would take four to six months to repair the span. According to Joseph Harvey, a railroad spokesman, “we have no plans at this time to close down the bridge…freight service will be continued after repairs are made.”
These repairs were never made. Penn Central and later Conrail (who took over ownership of the bridge in 1976) kept the bridge closed and did not maintain it. “Spikes and chunks of charred wood occasionally fell from it, some of them close enough to Poughkeepsie houses to alarm residents” (Mabee, 254). In 1984, in an effort to eliminate its liability. Conrail disposed of the bridge and approximately ten miles of right-of-way for one dollar.
Disputes over ownership, liability, and access continued for more than ten years. Different organizations and individuals came up with a variety of ideas for the future of the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, ranging from demolition to redevelopment as a commercial property with housing. In 1991, the Coast Guard called for the bridge to be demolished as a hazard because its navigation lights were out and no one was maintaining the structure.
In the 1890s and again in the 1920s, the public had unsuccessfully campaigned to open the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge to pedestrian traffic. The concept eventually reemerged in the 1990s, when a handful of citizens began yet another campaign to preserve the bridge by adapting it for use as a public walkway (Mabee, 267), a “walkway across the Hudson.”
The dreams of creating a pedestrian walkway came a step closer to reality in June 1998 when ownership of the bridge was transferred to Walkway Over the Hudson, a non-profit organization “committed to developing a group of dedicated supporters and volunteers who will fight for the creation of a walkway, who will support the bridge financially, and help develop the vision of Walkway Over the Hudson.”
Walkway Over the Hudson completed two in-depth studies demonstrating the long-term viability of the non-profit’s plan to transform the bridge into a lofty pedestrian park spanning the Hudson River. “These two studies—one reviewing the bridge’s structural soundness and the other analyzing its potential impact as an economic development initiative—demonstrate conclusively that the dream of restoring the historic Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge can be realized and will ultimately prove to be a tremendous economic benefit to the entire region,” said Walkway’s Chairman Fred Schaeffer.
Former Governor Eliot Spitzer committed state funds to “transform the long-dormant Hudson River crossing into an awe-inspiring historic park.” In his 2008 State of the State Address, Governor Spitzer committed “state dollars to develop the bridge into a walkway and bikeway park with breathtaking views of the Hudson.” When the bridge was built in 1888, it was the longest bridge in the world, “an engineering marvel,” Governor Spitzer said. However, “for the last three decades the bridge has sat empty and unused. As a pedestrian walkway over the Hudson, it will allow New Yorkers to connect to the history and natural beauty of our state and draw them to Poughkeepsie, Kingston and surrounding communities.”
The Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge will be dedicated as New York State’s newest park on October 3, 2009, as part of the Quadricentennial commemoration of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river now bearing his name. In addition to funding from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, generous support has been provided by the Dyson Foundation, Scenic Hudson, and many other organizations and individual donors.
Soon the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge will regain the distinction it earned when it opened 120 years ago, standing 212 feet above the water and spanning 6,767 feet across the Hudson River, Walkway Over the Hudson will be the longest pedestrian span in the world.
To learn more about the history of the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, visit Walkway Over the Hudson’s Web site www.walkway.org, and read Carleton Mabee’s Bridging The Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its ConnectingLines A Many-Faceted History, published by Purple Mountain Press.