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Edition #110, September 15, 2009
Black Smoke Over the Hudson
Photographer: John Fasulo
Photo by John Fasulo
Black Smoke Over the Hudson
On a bright spring day in early May 1974, I was driving north on Route 9 from my home in Beacon, NY to Poughkeepsie fifteen miles away. It was early afternoon and the sky was clear with some passing clouds and a breeze blowing from the South. Passing the IBM complex, I noticed black smoke rising over the Hudson. It was evident that something large was fully engulfed in flames but I couldn’t tell yet just what it was. Near Central Hudson Gas and Electric, traffic slowed and I could see that the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was ablaze. Since the highway goes right under the bridge, traffic was diverted to local roads. The historic bridge, Built in 1889 had been an important crossing for freight traffic and for many years and was the largest railroad bridge in the world at the time of its construction. As tragic as the fire was, this was a historic event.
A few weeks earlier I had photographed on the bridge. I risked at least a trespassing ticket and at worst arrest by venturing out on the bridge. At the time, I was looking to photograph some passing boats. A quarter of the way out onto the span, an eastbound freight appeared on the far side. As the train got closer, I could see the engineer watching me intently. Luck was with me, as he passed at a crawl, he looked down and shook his head, smiled and only wagged his finger at me. Now, a month later, I made my way to Parker Ave where the bridge comes out onto grade level. I always have a camera in the car, even a small point & shoot.
On this day I had a full camera bag with two 35mm Minolta SRT102s and a 35mm lens, a 200mm telephoto and a 50mm lens. I parked and made my way out onto the bridge. I wasn’t alone. A Poughkeepsie Journal photographer, nicknamed “Whitey” as he was Albino and legally blind, was right behind me. We went out on the burning bridge together. The fire department was already fighting the blaze with little success. One problem was that the fire line that ran across the bridge had not been purged in the fall and had cracked in a number of places making it useless. Fire personnel had to run long lines of hose off the bridge. The other problem was the bridges height, 212 feet above the Hudson. Fire trucks on the street below could barely get water on the bridge from their fully extended ladders. Fire hose was pulled up from the ground and quickly charged to fight the blaze. In all, 125 firemen from Poughkeepsie and Highland fought the blaze. As Whitey and I went about our task of documenting the fire, the bridge on at least two occasions shook violently. According to chief Ringwood, “we got to the point where I told the men I wouldn’t order them out any further. The bridge was moving, but when it moved eight feet, we all just stopped and looked at one another thinking it might come down any minute.” I’ve been asked when I relate this story, “wasn’t I scared?” The honest answer is that, maybe I was, but the excitement of the moment and the need to document history took precedent over any personal fear.
As the fire spread, the wind picked up and blew at a steady 10 miles an hour. I shot two rolls of film, and was loading a third when I noticed the fire department hosing down a propane tank farm directly underneath us. I turned to Whitey and suggested that maybe we should consider a strategic retreat. We moved back towards the Eastern shore, took a few more photos from a distance just in case and went our separate ways. Since Whitey was there, the Journal would have all the photos they needed so I headed for Newburgh and the local paper, the Newburgh Beacon News. I knew Ron Britzki, the editor and had done some freelance work for the paper in the past. Crossing the bridge at Beacon fifteen miles away smoke could still be seen rising into the air. I told the receptionist at the paper what I had and remember her saying, “Boy, will he be glad to see you!” Walking down the hall, you could hear Ron on the phone saying, “I don’t care, get me photos of that damn bridge burning.” It was a scene out of a movie. When he noticed me standing in the doorway, two rolls of film held up between my fingers he asked, “so, Fasulo, what do you have there”? I said, “Hang up the phones Ron, I’ve got your bridge fire.”
In its heyday, the bridge was part of a direct link by rail between the industrial northeastern states and the rest of the U.S. At one time more than 50 trains a day crossed the bridge. In 1974, that number dropped to one. Numerous railroads owned the bridge at times and with the merger of the Pennsylvania and the New York Central in 1968, the Penn Central preferred to utilize a different route, using instead its West Shore line, the Selkirk Yard and the railroad bridge at Castleton, NY. built in 1928. The decrease in manufacturing in the northeast and the increase in the cost of up-keep helped make the Poughkeepsie Bridge uneconomical. Maintenance on the bridge was negligible and the fire protection system inoperable. Watchmen who previously kept the bridge secure and watched for fires were let go. When the Penn Central petitioned for abandonment of the bridge, the request was denied.
Since that tragic day in May of 1974, no train has crossed the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge despite the assurances at the time of Penn Central. Immediately after the fire, Penn Central spokesman Joseph Harvey was quoted in the Poughkeepsie Journal saying that, “We have no plans at this time to close down the bridge.” He went on to say, “Our engineers have determined that there is no structural damage to the bridge and freight service will continue after repairs are made.” However this was not the case. Penn Central did nothing to repair the structure and in effect abandoned the bridge. In 1976 Penn Central’s successor Conrail acquired the bridge and also did nothing. In 1984, ten years after the fire, the railroad sold the bridge to a convicted felon to, as the railroad said, “Get it off the books.” Lots of theories have been floated as to just what started the fire. The fact that an eastbound freight crossed the bridge shortly before the fire started could lead to the possibility that a hot journal box sparked the blaze. Some feel that a disgruntled railroad employee tossed a flare onto the ties. Others think that railroad management may have given the order to set the fire. Whatever the truth, the fact is that the fire curtailed rail traffic from crossing the river in the mid-Hudson area. Eventually, the bridge came under the scrutiny of the US Coast Guard. As a potential threat to navigation the Coast Guard wanted it either torn down or for some entity to provide bridge navigation lights as required by law.
Over the years various plans and ideas have been proposed for the bridge’s use. Prior to its acquisition by the non-profit group Walkway Over the Hudson, it went through three owners who did little to plan a use for the structure. After non-payment of Dutchess and Ulster County taxes the bridge was deeded to the walkway group in June of 1998.
Today, the bridge is seeing a flurry of activity. Walkway Over the Hudson is headed by Poughkeepsie lawyer Fred Schaffer, who has been able to pull the needed support together and the funding to get the project off the ground. Work started last year on the west approach to the bridge and crews have extended the walkway out over the river. In March, a second crane was placed on the bridge’s east approach and work crews there have started securing the slabs of walkway on the east side. The fall of 2009 will see the bridge open to pedestrians as a walkway over the Hudson 121 years after its completion in 1888. The six main spans of the structure total 6,767 feet, which includes the approaches. The bridge is 212 feet above the Hudson and is a multispan cantilever bridge with three spans of 525 feet, two anchor spans of 525 feet, 2200-foot shore spans and an approach span on the east bank of 2600 feet. Fred Schaffer, Walkway President has been one of the driving forces behind the revitalization of the span as a pedestrian walkway. According to Schaffer,
”The Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge is one of the greatest structures built in the 19th century and is an icon of the Industrial Revolution of the era. As the longest bridge in North America it connected the manufacturing states of New England with developing areas west of the Hudson River. This country prospered largely as a result of this bridge.
During the war it was an important link in the supply line of troops and goods to the European war zone. So important it was guarded regularly by U.S. troops and during World War II was painted black to camouflage it so enemy airplanes didn't try to destroy it. As the world's longest dedicated pedestrian bridge with connecting trails on both sides of the Hudson River, it will become a world famous tourist attraction, showcasing the beautiful and historic Hudson Valley.”
On the bridge one might still hear the shrill sound of the steam engine that first crossed the span in 1888. Or, standing still, one might feel the vibration caused by a slowly plodding freight as it made its way over the bridge. The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge has survived for over 120 years. Long neglected, it has gained a new lease on life. However, instead of the drone of a lumbering freight, its deck will host people from both sides of the river and from around the world and will once again be the Great Bridge at Poughkeepsie.
Walkway Over the Hudson will stage an event to celebrate the bridge's reopening to the public on October 2-4, 2009. Information is available at www.walkway.org.
John Fasulo has an exhibit of photos of the bridge fire at Cafe Bocca in Poughkeepsie, NY. Original prints are available by contacting John Fasulo.
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Revised: 09/30/09 18:45:41 -0400