Built to facilitate transport of coal from the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to the mills of New England, the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was deemed the longest in the world when it opened in 1888. A fire in 1974 damaged the 6,767-foot iron span that rises majestically above New York's Hudson River. Obsolete thanks to speedier rail routes, the bridge was never repaired. It appeared destined for demolition or worse -- remaining as a colossal white elephant.
Now the elephant is getting a spectacular makeover, transformed into a state park boasting its own superlative. Dubbed Walkway Over the Hudson, the revitalized span will be the world's highest pedestrian bridge when it opens in the fall of 2009. Not only will strollers and cyclists enjoy magnificent views from their perch 212 feet above the river's surface, but links to rail trails on both shores will enable them to continue walking and pedaling for more than 30 miles.
This success story not only serves as a classic example of turning an eyesore into an asset but illustrates the amazing potential of grass-roots resolve. In 1992 a small group of individuals formed Walkway Over the Hudson, dedicated to replacing the bridge's ties and tracks with a public park. Over the next three years, they amassed money to purchase the span. Although they struggled for years to interest government and local leaders in their ambitious plan, they never gave up. Their perseverance eventually was rewarded with federal funding secured by Rep. Maurice Hinchey and a grant from the Dyson Foundation, one of the most visionary charitable organizations in the Hudson River Valley. These furnished the momentum to turn their dream into a reality.
Soon, thanks to state NY Sen. Steve Saland and Gov. David Paterson, the state also pledged substantial funding and agreed to manage the walkway as a state park. In fact, the bridge reclamation is now one of three state "legacy projects" planned to commemorate the 2009 quadricentennial of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river that bears his name. Scenic Hudson, the group I head, has donated $1 million to the $30-million initiative that's bound to boost tourism and the economies of communities on both sides of the bridge.
On May 27, as I participated in the official groundbreaking for Walkway Over the Hudson State Park, I was reminded of a quote: "We are told never to cross a bridge until we come to it, but this world is owned by men who have crossed bridges far ahead of the crowd." That so perfectly describes the men and women who have steadfastly believed in this project since the very beginning -- especially Walkway President Fred Schaeffer. They have turned a bridge to nowhere into something very special indeed.
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