As workers renovate the Western Gateway Bridge connecting Scotia and Schenectady, they are adding to a history that spans two centuries.
It began in the early 1800s with the construction of the Burr Bridge, a wooden-cabled suspension bridge that stood a short way downriver from the one cars rush across today. Designed by Theodore Burr, a bridge designer of the post-Revolutionary period, it was the first bridge to connect the village with the city.
The latest bridge won’t be completely renovated until early next year, according to the state Department of Transportation, but already it has made a name for itself. Commuters have voiced complaints about the recently erected concrete wall on its western side, which blocks the view of the Mohawk River.
Information varies on when construction began on the Burr Bridge, according to Melissa Tacke, librarian and archivist for the Schenectady County Historical Society. Most sources indicate 1806, but others say work began as early as 1803 or 1804 and was slowed due to the failure of the bridge’s arches in 1805. The bridge formally opened on Dec. 6, 1808.
In the 1870s, an iron bridge took its place, and then, in the 1920s, the first Western Gateway Bridge was constructed slightly west of its present location.
A look back in time shows that the concrete wall on the latest version of the Western Gateway Bridge isn’t the first to snatch away commuters’ scenic views of the Mohawk. In 1830, the Burr Bridge was boxed in to protect its aspen wood cables from the elements. The result was a covered bridge that looked like a series of barns built end-to-end.
A July 1997 article by Gazette columnist Larry Hart included an account of a trip across the covered Burr Bridge that first appeared in an 1872 issue of Appleton’s Journal.
“Upon passing the low, dingy portals, you seem to be entering the recesses of a deep cave,” the 1872 article reads. “… Daylight comes into it legitimately at a long distance through small openings prepared by the builders, but more frequently it steals through cracks in the boards or holes from which the knots have fallen long ago. Through these openings, along with sunlight, come also the swallows and other birds that have a taste for the picturesque. The upper timbers are dear especially to the bats in the network of beams overhead, which fly about until sombre twilight.”
Iron to concrete
The view of the Mohawk River was restored when the Burr Bridge was dismantled and replaced with a new iron bridge, placed on the piers of its predecessor. Construction took place from 1871-74, according to “Bridging the Mohawk River,” a research document complied in 1996 by John Gara and John Garver of Union College’s geology department.
In 1922, construction began on the Western Gateway Bridge. This bridge was concrete and, according to “Bridging the Mohawk River,” had 24 spans, each more than 90 feet long, the longest being 212 feet. Once completed, the bridge, which curved sharply after crossing Van Slyck Island, had a 4,515-foot span. It was built at a cost of $2.5 million.
The iron version of the Burr Bridge was dismantled in 1939, but its piers remain. Positioned at a narrow spot in the river, they facilitate ice jams, said Garver, who in addition to being a professor at Union College is organizer of the Mohawk Watershed Symposium.
The second Western Gateway Bridge, which opened in December 1973, was much shorter than the first, spanning only 1,875 feet. To make that possible, according to “Bridging the Mohawk River,” crews built the bridge to the east of its predecessor and filled in the Binnekill branch of the Mohawk River, which now serves as a parking area for Schenectady County Community College.
The girder-style bridge had five lane widths, sidewalks and bike paths. Its piers, only one set of which stand in the river, have no effect on the Mohawk’s flow, Garver said.
Last October, work began to replace the bridge’s decking. The renovation plans from April 2012 called for the footprint to remain much the same, with 5-foot-2-inch sidewalks, 4-foot shoulders and four 12-foot traffic lanes.
After listening to comments and concerns from the public and local elected officials, the state Department of Transportation modified the plans to add a multi-use lane for pedestrians and bicyclists, according to DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani.
The bridge will now include one 11-foot-wide travel lane in each direction plus one 14-foot-wide shared-use lane in each direction. The west side of the bridge now features a 5-foot-wide sidewalk, and the east side will have a 10-foot-wide multi-use path.
At the time the design modifications were made, a change to the bridge’s railings was also added.
“In conjunction with the change, the decision was made to make the barrier decorative, rather than the standard four-beam steel bridge railing,” said Viggiani in an email.
Local leaders were not made aware of the change in barrier plans at that time, he said.
Once the decorative concrete wall on the western side of the bridge went up, complaints began to pour in about how it obstructed the view of the river. In September, the DOT announced that the wall would not be duplicated on the eastern side of the bridge. Instead, a steel railing will be used.
At that time, Viggiani said the decision to allow the railing on the eastern side was made because there will be a multi-use path on that side of the bridge. The railing will provide nice views for bicyclists and pedestrians, he explained.
Despite the fact that half of the view from the bridge has been salvaged, commuters are still voicing complaints. Retired lawyer David Giacalone is urging local residents to contact elected officials to call for replacement of the concrete wall with a see-through railing.
“I live here in the Stockade, and my backyard is on the Mohawk. I see the Mohawk a lot, and yet every time I drive over that bridge, seeing that scenic view was a treat,” he said.
Giacalone voiced his displeasure to local officials and received a letter from Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy. In the letter, dated Oct. 8, McCarthy confirmed that city officials were not solicited for comment on the railing choice.
“I believe it was truly unfortunate that the local officials and everyday citizens did not have an opportunity to comment on the bridge’s details before construction began, as is normally done,” McCarthy said in the letter.
Despite continued public outcry, the concrete wall will not be replaced with a steel railing, Viggiani said. It’s not plausible because it would add considerable cost and time to the project, he explained.
The public has also voiced concern about the lack of fencing between the sidewalk and the roadway, but there is no fence in the design plans, Viggiani said.
Garver said communication between community members and entities that control infrastructure that affects the river is essential in order to make the most of the river as a resource.
“If the bridge is viewed as a way to get from one side of the river to the other side of the river, at the end, that’s all you’re going to get, a way to get from one side of the river to the other side of the river. But if a bridge is viewed as an opportunity to link communities and for enhancement of a community’s experience or interaction with the river, then it’s going to be that much better, and the community is going to be that much better,” he said. “We need to get better at embracing this watershed, embracing the river and making it part of our identity, and if we can’t do it with the bridges, we’re missing an important opportunity.”