Hudson rail bridge will be high-altitude walkway
By MICHAEL HILL | Associated Press Writer
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. - The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was a high-spanned marvel in its day, carrying everything from coal to trolley riders over the Hudson River. Then a fire in 1974 reduced the bridge to an Industrial-Age eyesore looming over the city.
Locals talked about tearing the rusty bridge down or building it up with shops, restaurants, maybe a bungee-jumping business.
But plans always stalled, at least until now.
Workers this fall are clanking away at the metal and laying on concrete slabs for a high-altitude pedestrian bridge organizers say will be the longest in the world at 1.25 miles. When it opens Oct. 2, 2009 _ a date coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that would bear his name _ the $35 million bridge will link to fitness trails on both sides of the river and be operated by the state parks department.
We think people will come from all over," Fred Schaeffer said on a recent day as he watched the construction. "It's the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge."
Schaeffer is a local lawyer who volunteers as head of Walkway Over the Hudson, a not-for-profit group renovating the bridge. The river's shore drops off steeply here so the bridge deck is a vertiginous 212 feet above the river, as high as the George Washington Bridge 70 miles south in New York City.
Walkers, bicyclists and runners will get a panoramic view of the valley that takes in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mansion to the north. Schaeffer said visitors will have the sensation of "walking on air."
The bridge will initially connect to five miles of paved rail trails to the west in Highland and up to four more miles on the Poughkeepsie side. Advocates hope to eventually create a network of trails on both sides of the river.
"It's going to take awhile to get all this stuff realized," said Erik Kulleseid, deputy commissioner for open space protection at the state parks department.
It's not a stretch to see the bridge as a symbol of a once-struggling area that has rebounded as New York City's commuter belt pushed north. The river buzzed with commerce when trains started chugging across the bridge in 1889. It provided a crucial link between the coal fields of Pennsylvania and the factories of New England. Trains eventually carried everything from passengers to apples to oil.
Train traffic was already down in 1974 when fire struck the Poughkeepsie side of the bridge (it may have started with a spark from a train landing on a creosote-covered tie). The railroad showed little appetite to pay for repairs and eventually sold the bridge to a shadowy group of investors whose frontman maintained an office at a taxi stand in suburban Philadelphia.
The bridge sat unused during a tough time on the river. The Hudson River by the '70s had become so polluted it was a national joke and the old industrial cities along the shore were reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs. People looked to the bridge as a possible solution.
People came up with grandiose plans for the decaying bridge that included, but were not limited to, a commuter shuttle, shops, a skymall and a suspended restaurant. A psychedelic paint job was suggested. Dynamite also was considered.
Walkway Over the Hudson began its pedestrian-bridge campaign in 1992 and assumed ownership six years later. Schaeffer has headed the group since 2003 and has aggressively sought public and private funding. The $35 million project is being paid for by a mix of public and private funds, with the Dyson Foundation contributing $2 million and Scenic Hudson $1 million.
With the group still trying to raise the last $12.5 million, workers this fall are laying down prefabricated concrete slabs for the deck.
The eastern end of the bridge is just uphill from the Poughkeepsie commuter rail station, a likely arrival point for day-trippers from New York City. To accommodate visitors arriving by train, the group is seeking more money for a waterfront elevator that Walkway executive director Amy Husten said will act as the bridge's "front door."
The $2.1 million elevator could open a few years later and would allow west shore commuters to bike over the bridge to catch Metro-North trains.
The project has similarities to the development in Manhattan of the High Line park, which involves the reclamation of an overgrown rail line on the far West Side. The big difference is that High Line will be an urban park with circuitous paths and plenty of greenery. The Walkway is more like a scenic trail.
The Walkway might be closer in spirit to projects up and down the river in which careworn old buildings are being renovated to cater to shopping, eating or leisure, like the old cracker factory downriver that is now the Dia:Beacon art museum. A consultant estimated that the walkway will draw about 268,000 visitors a year.
Husten mapped out the big plans for the bridge on a recent day even as Wall Street began wobbling precariously. She conceded raising the remaining funds might be a challenge, but she used an analogy that would make Henry Hudson proud.
"It's happening," Husten said. "This ship has definitely sailed."
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