Looking south from the Walkway to the Mid-Hudson Bridge

On October 3rd, 6000 people turned out to commemorate the opening of a multi-million-dollar civic project the scope of which probably hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Of course, it’s hardly the Hoover Dam, or the Interstate Highway System, but it’s been decades since any federal or state government in the U.S. put serious money and backbreaking labor into a construction that exists purely to benefit the public at large. In a time when commuter bridges are falling apart or simply being shut down for safety purposes, it is astounding to see public funds poured into a pedestrian bridge crossing the Hudson River.

Much like the Hudson River it straddles, this bridge has been called “muscular.” Unlike the river, it is a solid, soaring relic of the Industrial Revolution. The Walkway over the Hudson is a project and organization that has attempted to achieve its goal in fits and starts for almost 20 years. Finally pushed through by state funding — in a year of recession, no less, when word was the entire project would be scrapped — to coincide with the Hudson Valley’s 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic voyage, the bridge’s renovation was completed to almost everyone’s astonishment.

The railway bridge was originally built in the late 1800s to funnel coal from the mines of Pennsylvania across to New York and New England, and to service the industrial upstate New York city of Poughkeepsie, sitting on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. It was abandoned in the 1970s and left, basically, to rot.

Some say the renovation only went through because, while the Walkway project cost $38 million, it would have cost $60 million to dismantle the bridge, but who ever accused a politician of common sense, much less common fiscal sense? The acceptance and completion of the project seems to be a complete fluke, especially as two weeks later the only commuter bridge linking New York to Vermont across Lake Champlain was suddenly closed indefinitely due to fears of its safety, leaving commuters with a 100-mile detour.

Whatever its reasons, the fluke that allowed the Walkway over the Hudson to reach completion is to the benefit of anyone residing in or visiting the Hudson Valley. In a time when travel is too expensive for many and a need for community is growing, the pedestrian bridge seems to be feeding people’s need for something new, something local, something to be proud of, and yes, something free.

Crowds at the western edge of the Walkway over the HudsonWitness last weekend, when we finally drove up to walk the bridge with some friends. We expected crowds, but we certainly didn’t expect the nearly 3000 people who soared with us at an unbelievable height across the river, pushing strollers, walking dogs, dodging bicycles and runners, and taking hundreds of photographs.

The bridge walk is 1.28 miles from end to end, and a loop slightly over 3 miles links the pedestrian bridge to a pedestrian path on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which was built and is still used for cars. Eventually the Walkway will also link to abandoned railbeds that crisscross the Hudson Valley. Its eastern shore, consisting of post-industrial Poughkeepsie, ends relatively close to the train station, making the Walkway accessible for visitors taking the scenic Hudson train line up from Grand Central in New York City.

Its construction is impressively solid, and sports Historic Hudson and Environmental Hudson informational posters at various intervals. There is also a Talking Walkway, a number you can dial to receive an audio tour of the Walkway through your cell phone.

Looking north from the Walkway on the Hudson pedestrian bridgeThe project, of course, is not all roses. While it gives people like me hope out of all proportion for a future in which the public good is more important than private profits, the Walkway has had its issues. As we finished our walk, I spoke with two State Park employees who were changing the trash. The organization that’s been pushing the project, they told me, had been enthusiastic for 20 years but in the end had little idea of how to manage it. So they turned it into a State Park, “and now we’re stuck with figuring it out.”

I asked about the parking. We had expected, and found, parking problems on a beautiful autumn Sunday, but laughed aloud when we finally reached the parking lot itself. There were 10 spaces. “They were expecting about 100 people a day at best,” said the Park employees. “Nothing like this. They’re completely unprepared.” They waved at the Clovis toilets that I hadn’t noticed before. “We can’t even open the composting toilets because they can’t handle the volume. We’re too green!” That’s why the Port-a-Potties were still heavily in use, and, I might add, getting awfully full.

Winter is undecided. The bridge sits high above the Hudson River, and while the views are awe-inspiring, the winds can be strong and biting. No one has worked out how to remove built-up snow, and, said the Park employee, “You can’t just let people on if there’s snowdrifts because then the guardrails will be at an unsafe height.” Well, I wouldn’t have thought of that, either.

Still, the whole shebang seems better organized than the highway construction that’s in constant flux near our New York State Thruway entrance. And, judging by the sheer volume of visitors who repeated the phrase “Oh,yeah, it’s definitely worth the walk,” I’m not the only one who’s moved and inspired by a project designed simply to share the beauty and wonder of the Hudson Valley with anyone who cares to make the trek.