Fred Schaeffer, chairman of Walkway Over the Hudson, now a New York state park, is the 2010 Heart of Green Local Hero. The Local Hero is nominated by the audience of The Daily Green and chosen by its editorial staff. This is Schaeffer's story.
Fred Schaeffer first took in the view from the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge in 1993, nearly 20 years after the last train had rolled across it. Another 10 years would lapse before he took charge of the task of refurbishing the towering steel structure as a park an extraordinary park that has given the city and region a much-needed boost.
Built in 1889, the bridge was a marvel of engineering, spanning more than a mile of the Hudson River at one of its deepest points. Built to shorten the travel time for freight, it was also a huge economic success, at least for a time. By 1974, when a fire ended nearly a century of train traffic, its importance had already faded. For another three decades it would stand as a symbol of a faded industrial past, as the city below it experienced a similar decline mirrored in small cities across the U.S.: jobs lost to closing factories, businesses lost to suburban malls, and the urban decay, poverty and violence that gained ground in their absence.
By the time Schaeffer stood on the bridge in 1993, it had long since been owned by a non-profit group, the goal of which was to transform the bridge into a pedestrian walkway that would rank among the longest in the world. But the group, Walkway Over the Hudson, had just $3,000 in the bank, and bylaws that prevented it from using anything but volunteer labor or private donations to fulfill its mission. An accident involving one of those volunteers led to a court order prohibiting people from visiting the bridge, so that the only foot traffic 212 feet above the river was the occasional thrill-seeker, quickly photographed by the local paper, then dispatched to the city lockup. When Schaeffer was elected as chairman of the board in 2004, changes came quickly, starting with the lifting of the court order.
"We changed it to a professional organization, where we would be using volunteers to support the projects and raise funds, but no volunteers would work on the bridge. We'd hire professionals to do the design work and construction," Schaeffer, an attorney who lives outside Poughkeepsie, said. "We changed the bylaws so we could accept public funding; the original project could only be done with private donations. We amended the bylaws and actively sought to make it a coalition of various municipalities, with the state and federal governments, and to get help from public funding and from businesses and foundations."
The celebrations planned for 2009 to celebrate the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson's voyage aboard the Dutch ship the Half Moon, gave the project urgency. The flush days before the Great Recession gave it the capital necessary. But it was Schaeffer's leadership and vision that made the renovation succeed after languishing for so long. The critical insight came from his first visit to the bridge a decade earlier: Once people see the sweeping view of the Hudson Valley, a landscape that was the catalyst for America's first art movement, they become supporters. For some individuals, that meant $10 donations. For government and philanthropists like the Dyson Foundation, it meant millions.
The $3,000 in the bank would not have gone far. The total renovation, including the installation of an elevator near the Poughkeepsie Train Station in 2011, is expected to cost $38.5 million. It's now officially a multimillion dollar view from the top of the bridge.
"It's one of the greatest structures built in the 19th century. People thought it was a rickety old bridge," Schaeffer said. "By going up on it, they really got a feel for the historic importance of the bridge and it's potential."
The bridge became New York's newest state park in October 2009, with a celebration that included booming fireworks and paper lanterns that drifted silently into the night. By then the Great Recession was a year old, and some questioned the wisdom of spending so much on what amounts to an epic recycling project. The state's budget crisis soon grew so acute that Gov. David Paterson was asking legislators to close several state parks altogether, and pare back the hours at others, including Walkway Over the Hudson.
But Walkway Over the Hudson State Park has drawn nearly 600,000 visitors in its first six months far exceeding the 250,000 annual visitors predicted by an early economic projection. It's already the third-most visited state park in New York, behind Jones Beach on Long Island, and Niagara Falls. By 2011, the bridge will be connected to 25 miles of rail trails. Tourists are visiting Poughkeepsie, and Highland on the opposite side of the river. The elevator will soon make it easy for anyone to visit by Amtrak, and for New York City residents to reach the park by commuter rail, without the use of a car, magnifying the number of potential visitors by millions.
"I always thought its full potential won't be reached until we have that elevator; then I think people will come from all over the world," Schaeffer said. "But already we're getting people from all over the world."
That level of success is of course gratifying. But Schaeffer points to two more personal experiences that give him pride. An avid bicycler and photographer, he recalls his first ride across the bridge, with his granddaughter, just before it opened to the public. And he recalls a moment on the first day of Spring this year, when he arrived at dawn to open the gates for the public, as he continues to do on weekends.
"Then I see the sun come up. The sun comes up perfectly in line with the Walkway on the first day of Spring. And it will be the same way on the first day of Fall," Schaeffer said. "Then, five kids, about twelve or thirteen years old, came from behind me in Highland and biked into the sunrise. I used to explore the world by biking; seeing those kids come out reminded me of my own childhood. What are the odds of five kids coming out at 7 o'clock in the morning on the first day of Spring when I'm there taking photos?"
Right time. Right place. Right guy.
Photos: Fred Schaeffer
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