By Loren Pacheco, Geography, Class of 2024.
In 1871, a group of Poughkeepsie businessmen proposed building the largest cantilever bridge up to that point. The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, or “Great Bridge”, would span the Hudson River, providing an alternative to ferries and other small-scale transport operations. Such a behemoth project required an incredible amount of materials and labor. Although railroad work was often done by Irish immigrants during this time, most Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge were Italian immigrants. A local paper described the work as “mean”, saying that it was work that only recent immigrants “could or would do”.
Financial struggles plagued the bridge throughout its construction. Shortly after a company was founded to head the project, the Panic of 1873 caused investment to fall through. In 1876, laborers stopped working because of inadequate pay following a realization that the bridge’s supports would need to be deeper than expected. This stalled construction until a settlement was reached. Despite these difficulties, the bridge finally opened in 1889.
Despite the hard-fought battle to create the bridge, it didn’t live up to hopes that it might boost Poughkeepsie’s economy. However, it did prove important in bridging the gap between New England and more Western territories, which was especially helpful for the Pennsylvania coal industry to reach eastern textile markets. This earned it the nickname “The Great Connector”. Throughout its heyday, service along the bridge also included circus trains, milk trains, West Point football trains, and trolley cars which took students from New Paltz to Lucky Platt’s, a department store in Poughkeepsie.
Unfortunately, the rail boom was relatively short-lived. Coal traffic between the Midwest and New England decreased, and in 1930, the Mid-Hudson Bridge opened right beside it, designed for increasing automobile traffic. Penn Central, the company in charge of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, faced financial difficulties and stopped maintaining it. These pressures culminated on May 8, 1974, when the bridge caught fire, likely due to a lack of watchmen and proper maintenance. 700 feet of track were destroyed, and shortly after, Penn Central went bankrupt, unable to fix the extensive damage. The “Great Connector” sat unused for decades.
Facing demolition, the bridge got a second life, spearheaded by local resident Bill Sepe. He created the Walkway Over The Hudson Foundation, envisioning the old bridge as a space for locals to use. Sepe was adamant that the project be fully privately funded. “There’s just too many other things that need (government) money,” he told the Middletown-based Times Herald-Record in 2009. Sepe’s unorthodox methods of volunteer bridge repair led to the Poughkeepsie and Lloyd governments’ rejection of the project.
The project began to gain traction when the organization changed hands. Now led by Fred Schaeffer, the foundation began to pursue a public-private partnership, against Sepe’s initial wishes. Pitching it as a financial and cultural asset for the area, it was able to secure funding from a variety of sources. The Dyson Foundation – a philanthropic group that funds projects in the Hudson Valley – was a huge initial donor, providing millions of dollars to support the project. However, the biggest contribution was a 20-million-dollar government grant which stipulated the change in control of the site from the not-for-profit Walkway Over the Hudson Foundation to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Preservation, designating the Walkway a State Historic Park.
On paper, the Walkway has been a huge success. The park attracts 500,000 visitors annually, twice the number originally predicted. Park users walk, run, or bike while accessing the beautiful scenery of the Hudson River. Food vendors and shops line the park’s edges, which are also common sites for concerts and other community events. In 2013 the bridge was connected with the Dutchess County Rail Trail, a bike and pedestrian trail that connects to other routes to make up the Empire State Trail, which spans the entire length of New York State.
However, more complex effects have come out of the Walkway Over the Hudson in the form of city and regional branding. The partnership with New York State brought a focus on attracting outside visitors and new residents to the area. This is part of a larger attempt to attract the creative class, a population that has soared in other Hudson Valley cities. The Walkway has been used by Poughkeepsie GO!, a campaign to market Poughkeepsie as a commuter city to New York City eager for new development, and has been the subject of many an article urging New Yorkers to make the move upstate. While some think that new investment would help revitalize the city, similar patterns in nearby cities have led to increases to the cost of living that price out local families. Critics argue that this focus on outside people and investment takes away from communities that live in Poughkeepsie, communities that are in many cases still suffering from the effects of urban renewal and other harmful policy decisions.
Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. Source: I Love NY 2022.
The effects of this tourism-focused public-private partnership are evident not only on the Walkway itself, but also around the city of Poughkeepsie. Downtown Poughkeepsie is plastered with signs advertising the “Walkway Experience”, highlighting historic districts and neighborhoods as part of this experience, which culminates in using the park. Critics of the project argue that this branding positions Poughkeepsie as a city incidentally adjacent to the Walkway, not the Walkway as a small part of the city at large. Much like the railroad bridge itself, the new park was slated to energize the local economy, but it has been found that most visitors come just to enjoy the park without spending much money in the surrounding city. The Walkway’s users don’t accurately represent the community either – although the entrance to the Walkway is in the Northside, a district with a majority nonwhite and lower income population, that population is significantly underrepresented among users of the park.
The Walkway is a shining example of the adaptive reuse of unused industrial infrastructure into beloved public space. It carries great historical value and provides the community with outdoor space to enjoy the Hudson as a cultural resource. However, the legacy of the Walkway is also one of community discord. A decade after its opening, it remains unclear whether its overall effect on Poughkeepsie is more positive or negative. The “Great Connector” continues to provide service for some, but may pass over others in its path.
From the Poughkeepsie Train Station, a 12 minute (0.6 mi) walk.
To learn more:
Elise Chessman, An Un-Bridged Divide: the Disconnect of an Elevated Urban Experience at the Walkway Over the Hudson, Vassar College, Senior Thesis in Geography, 2018.
Jeremiah Horrigan, “Bill Sepe’s Walkway Dream Finally Becomes Reality,” The Times Herald Record, October 2, 2009.
Carleton Mabee, Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its Connecting Rail Lines. Purple Mountain Pr Ltd, 2001.
Michael Zipp, A View From Above: Reimagining Poughkeepsie Through the Lens of the Walkway Over the Hudson, Vassar College, Senior Thesis in Urban Studies, 2011.