Everett Rau was just a little boy when construction began on the first Western Gateway Bridge, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.
The pilings for the bridge were made from hemlock trees harvested at a farm across from the one where the 94-year-old Rau was born and still lives. Some of the workhorses for the project were housed in his family’s barn.
“My father walked me up the hill just a little ways to see them loading these huge trees,” he recalled. “Next to a big oak tree, they rigged up a type of a hoist that could load those onto the back of a truck with a set of wheels that were way off in the back.”
Rau rode to Schenectady in his family’s first car — a 1923 Model T Ford — to see the bridge being built. He and his older brother got as close to the water as they could, and watched the steam-powered pile driver in action.
“You could hear it as the steam came in and raised a heavy weight up, then a puff of steam would come out and that would release the steam and [the weight] would drop down on top of the tree and drive it down into the mud of the Mohawk River bottom,” he explained. “It was neat enough that I can [still] draw a picture of it today. . . . It was so impressive to me.”
not the first
The bridge Rau watched being built wasn’t the first to span the Mohawk River between Schenectady and Scotia. The original was the Burr Bridge, built in the early 1800s. 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.
According to “Bridging the Mohawk River,” a research document compiled in 1996 by John Gara and John Garver of Union College’s geology department, the first Western Gateway Bridge 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.
According to Rau, the bridge became quite the tourist attraction.
“I recall that many people would come for miles just to drive from Schenectady to Scotia to say they had driven over the Western Gateway Bridge,” he said.
His farm, also the birthplace of his mother and grandfather, has been in his family since 1799. His predecessors shipped food and hay to New York City after the Civil War. Loose hay was taken by wagon from the farm to Fuller Station Road, where it was hand-loaded into freight cars.
“You can imagine what a small amount of hay you could pack into a freight car by hand,” he said.
His family’s farm also produced fruit, poultry, pigs, cattle, eggs, walnuts and hickory nuts to ship to the city.
“This farm was not unique. All the farms in this area did that. This is how people in the cities ate. They didn’t get grapes from Chile back then,” he said with a laugh.
Rau’s first job on the farm was gathering eggs, at age four or five.
“The chickens laid their eggs just about anyplace that they could find to hide them because they weren’t penned up like they are today,” he recalled.
still at work
These days, Rau still tends to his chickens and does a little gardening, but his son and grandson do most of the work on the 123-acre farm.
He can’t recall a time when he hasn’t been busy with farm chores.
“My wife tells me that I must have been born working,” he chuckled.