As visitors move toward either entrance of the Walkway over the Hudson State Historic Park, there is little indication of the grand vista awaiting them just a few hundred yards away.
There is no extravagant approach, either on the city of Poughkeepsie side on the east bank of the Hudson River, or in the town of Highland to the west. A small parking lot at each location leads to a paved walkway shrouded in tree cover, allowing for limited visibility. It feels like most other bike trails you might encounter in upstate New York along the Hudson, except that in a few short minutes this rail trail puts you well above the river and extends for more than a mile. It is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world and has added dramatically to the mid-Hudson Valley’s status as a major tourist destination.
“Our initial estimate was 250,000 people visiting each year, but we’re doing much better than that,” said Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, executive director of the Walkway Over the Hudson, a nonprofit group that was created in 1992 to help save what was then the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge from being demolished. “We’re at 1.5 million since we opened in October of 2009, so it really has been a huge success.”
Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park
WHERE: Spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, and Highland, Sullivan County
WHEN: Open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset
HOW MUCH: $5 for parking
MORE INFO: www.walkway.org
The walkway attracts runners, walkers and cyclists each day, as well as those just looking to appreciate the view, which includes the Catskill Mountains, the city of Poughkeepsie and, just to the south, the Mid-Hudson Bridge.
“We get a very dedicated group of day-to-day users who usually walk, run or bike, and then we have people from a 10- [to] 15-mile radius who show up frequently for the view,” said Waldstein-Hart.
“Those people bring more people, and then we’re getting more people from further away than we thought. We’re 90 miles from New York [City], so we get those folks, and we’ve also had tourists from every state in the union and from 39 different countries.”
It was Bill Sepe, a self-employed handyman from Poughkeepsie, who in 1992 first proposed the idea of turning the railroad bridge — a neglected eyesore — into a pedestrian bridge. He wanted to do it with money donated from the public and wanted all the work to be done on a volunteer basis. While his efforts created Walkway Over the Hudson and helped the group purchase the bridge in 1998, the work eventually stalled. That’s when Fred Schaeffer, a local attorney, became chairman of Walkway Over the Hudson in 2004 and oversaw its completion.
“Bill did some wonderful things and kept the project going. But in my mind, the public-private partnership was necessary to get the work done,” said Schaeffer. “We needed to have things done professionally, and we needed to have the bridge inspected and everything approved to get the municipalities involved.”
Money also came in from the state and federal governments, and many private corporations in the area also contributed their financial support.
“I knew if we got this thing started that people were going to see its potential,” said Schaeffer. “I thought it might take a long time to do it, but I felt like there would be a demand to get it done. I’m actually surprised it was done as quickly as it was. I ride my bike over it quite a bit and I’m ecstatic about it. It makes me very happy to see so many people using the walkway and enjoying it. It’s been a wonderful experience for everybody.”
Building a bridge
The first train rolled across the bridge for a test run on Dec. 29, 1888, but talk of building a huge structure to cross the Hudson at Poughkeepsie dates back to 1855, an idea that seemed so absurd at the time that it was ridiculed in the local newspaper. The project was brought up again in 1868, and the Poughkeepsie Bridge Co. was chartered in 1871 only to have its funding done in by the Panic of 1873.
Then, in 1886, after a few more starts and stops, the Manhattan Bridge Building Co. was formed and construction actually got under way, with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate Charles Macdonald, Thomas Curtis Clarke and Arthur B. Paine handling the design. Upon completion, the bridge was regarded as an engineering marvel of its day, stretching for 6,768 feet and rising more than 200 feet above the Hudson. A steel cantilever bridge, it was reinforced in 1912 when famed engineer Ralph Modjeski added a third line of trusses down the middle and another central girder to allow for the increasing weight of freight trains.
The bridge was owned by several different lines: the New York Central, the Central New England Railway, the New Haven and Hartford Railroad, the Penn Central, and Conrail. During World War II, its value to the war effort was so important that it was guarded 24 hours a day by the U.S. Army.
A slow decline in traffic began in 1960 because of the creation of the Erie Lackawanna Railway as well as the sagging fortunes of most railroads. In 1974, a wooden tie fire damaged a 700-foot section of the bridge as well as the underlying girders. New York state, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Penn Central agreed to share the costs of repairing the bridge, but in June 1975 Penn Central was heading for bankruptcy and announced that it regarded repairing the bridge as “against our best interests.”
In April 1976, Conrail, created by Congress to replace several failing railroads, became the new owner of the Poughkeepsie bridge and refused to spend money to rebuild it, saying it would cost more to repair the bridge than to demolish it. According to Carleton Mabee, author of “Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and its Connecting Rail Lines,” Conrail secretly hoped the bridge would “fall quietly into the Hudson.”
In 1984, after years of threatening to demolish the bridge, Conrail was able to sell it to private owners whose only source of income was the $25,000 in rent they charged to the Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. for the power lines that had been attached to the bridge since 1949. Then, in June 1998, after more than two decades of nonuse and nonpayment of taxes, the private owners decided to deed the bridge to Walkway Over the Hudson.
In May 2008, after another decade of fundraising, the group actually saw construction begin to transform the old railroad bridge into a pedestrian walkway. On Oct. 3, 2009, the walkway officially opened as a state park.
“We spent 10 years trying to bring this project together,” said Waldstein-Hart.
“Our nonprofit championed the idea and acted as the lead agency, and when it was finally ready we donated it to the state parks department. They’re in charge of the walkway, the linear park on top of the old railroad bridge, and then we donated the structure itself to the New York State Bridge Authority. So, it’s owned and operated by two different state entities, and our organization continues to oversee the remaining construction projects. It’s such a wonderful example of a private and public partnership working perfectly together.”
Among those construction projects Waldstein-Hart is trying to raise money for is an elevator that will carry people 21 stories from the waterfront in Poughkeepsie to the walkway.
“We do have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said. “Our approaches need to be upgraded as do our parking lots, and we want to build a nice new visitor center. Then we hope to have an elevator that will enable people to take the train from New York and then just get on the elevator to the top of the walkway. We think our elevator will be an attraction in itself, and be another great reason to come to the park.”
Another ingredient sure to attract more people will be a connecting bike path from the Dutchess Rail Trail to the walkway, allowing cyclists to ride to the Hudson River from Hopewell Junction 12 miles to the east. Waldstein-Hart’s group purchased the empty rail bed from CSX just last month and immediately donated it to Dutchess County. The bike path is expected to open in 2013.
Overseeing the state park are two full-time employees and a small group of seasonal employees.
Linda Cooper is regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in the Taconic Region, which covers a four-county area between New York City and Albany.
“We depend a lot on volunteers, and Elizabeth has a whole crew of people we call ambassadors that work with us,” said Cooper. “We also work with the neighboring police and state police so it really is a collaborative effort. It has to be because we don’t really have the staff to cover the whole area.”
Like Waldstein-Hart, Cooper is hopeful of seeing a new visitor center and other amenities sometime soon.
“Our vision is to have something where we can have office space for the parks people and the friends group, and then also have an area where people can come in and buy concession goods related to the park, and where we can explain some of the wonderful history associated with the area.”
Cooper’s staff also has the responsibility of closing the walkway in case of inclement weather.
“If there is an unsafe situation, typically lightning or very high winds, we will close the walkway,” she said. “It usually takes about a half hour to complete a sweep and get people off the bridge, and our staff always has a pretty good handle on the weather and monitors the forecasts very closely.”