Walkway Over the Hudson
Designer: Bergmann Associates
Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge
When it was completed in 1888, the 6,767-foot-long Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was billed as the world’s longest span. Besides proving an engineering spectacle, the bridge served as a pragmatic link: the first Hudson River crossing south of Albany, shuttling everything from freight to army troops between New England and the West. Thirty years later, though, Hell Gate Bridge in Manhattan overtook the Poughkeepsie-Highland in importance. Rather than make the necessary repairs after a 1974 fire, the New Haven Railroad sold the char to a Pennsylvania buyer for $1.
COURTESY Fred Schaeffer
Is the Poughkeepsie-Highland bridge the upstate version of the High Line? That cause célèbre measures just a few thousand feet longer; it also enjoyed three decades of economic relevance; and like the bridge towering 212 feet above the Hudson River, the High Line offers a unique perch for comprehending an impossible-to-grasp landscape. It seems fitting, then, that the mid-Hudson link should be converted to a park, grabbing another title as the world’s longest pedestrian bridge. It will open in October 2009 for the Henry Hudson Quadricentennial.
In some ways, the Poughkeepsie-Highland’s transformation has been even more circuitous than that of its Manhattan cousin. “We just haven’t been able to get multitudes up here,” said Fred Schaeffer, a Poughkeepsie-based attorney who chairs the board of Walkway Over the Hudson (WOH), the bridge’s nonprofit owner. “It took us awhile to get this momentum going.” After the organization’s first leader, Bill Sepe, negotiated the bridge’s title transfer to WOH in 1995, he and volunteers spent nine years traversing the structure, placing wood planks over extant railroad ties themselves.
Seeking a broader base of contributors, in 2004 WOH members elected Schaeffer as chairman, and the group has since garnered deep-pocketed supporters, most notably Scenic Hudson, the Dyson Foundation, and the State of New York. Schaeffer says that almost $22 million of the $35 million project cost has been raised. In late May, working from designs by the architecture and engineering firm Bergmann Associates, crews began removing old railroad ties, and on September 1 they began to replace compromised steel and rivets and build new decking from 4-ton precast concrete panels.
Now that it’s underway, the transformation of the Poughkeepsie-Highland bridge is proceeding at a faster clip than the High Line. That’s not surprising. The redesign of this steel-truss tinker toy isn’t nearly as complex as reinventing Manhattan’s industrial relic. Here, a simple concrete deck divided into pedestrian and bicycle lanes will dovetail with 25 miles of rail-trails on the mainland. Schaeffer, though, said that elements like information kiosks, observation decks, and a visitor’s center are still planned, and could be the product of a design competition. He added, “We just haven’t had the time to think it through.”