The Poughkeepsie Bridge (sometimes known as the "Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge", the "Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge" or the "High Bridge") is a steel cantilever single track railway bridge spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie, New York on the east bank and Highland, New York on the west. It was completed on January 1, 1889, and went out of service on May 8, 1974. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, updated in 2008. It is expected to reopen in 2009 as a pedestrian bridge.
The Poughkeepsie Bridge Company was chartered in June 1871 to build the bridge, and J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad was persuaded to support the effort. Contracts were let to a firm called the American Bridge Company (not the company of the same name founded later), but the Panic of 1873 intervened and the scheme collapsed.
In 1886, the Manhattan Bridge Building Company was organized to finance the construction. Among the prominent backers was Henry Clay Frick, the coal tycoon and associate of Andrew Carnegie. The Union Bridge Company of Athens, Pennsylvania, which had completed the Michigan Central cantilever bridge at Niagara (see Niagara Cantilever Bridge), was subcontracted to build the Poughkeepsie structure. Dawson, Symmes and Usher were the foundation engineers, while John F. O'Rourke, P. P. Dickinson and Arthur B. Paine were the structural engineers. The bridge was designed by Charles Macdonald and A.B. Paine. As is typical for cantilever bridges, construction was carried out by constructing cribwork, masonry piers, towers, fixed sections on falsework, and finally cantilever sections, with the final cantilever interconnection spans (if used) floated out or raised with falsework.
The bridge was considered an engineering marvel of the day and has six main spans. The total length is , including approaches, and the deck is above water. It is a multispan cantilever bridge, having three river-crossing cantilever spans of , two anchor spans of , shore spans and a 2,654 approach span on the eastern bank, as the eastern bank is lower than the western side, which has bluffs in that area. It formed part of the most direct rail route between the industrial northeastern states and the midwestern and western states.
The bridge was strengthened in either 1906 or 1912 (sources vary), possibly by Ralph Modjeski, by adding a third line of trusses down the middle and by adding a central girder and additional interleaved columns, to safely handle the increase in weight of trains, as can be seen in this illustration from the Poughkeepsie Journal story archive
With the 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central, the Lehigh & Hudson River Railway, which fed vital through traffic to the "Maybrook Line" at Maybrook Yard, NY, similarly entered receivership. On May 8, 1974, the Poughkeepsie Bridge suffered a fire that damaged the bridge decking: reported shortly after an eastbound freight train had crossed, with the fire confined to the eastern viaduct over the City of Poughkeepsie. Penn Central had totally neglected the bridge's fire-protection system, which had no water on the day of the fire, while firing watchmen who had previously kept watch for such fires. In 1976, after two years of abandonment, Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D.-Conn.) forced Conrail to acquire the former New York, New Haven & Hartford "Maybrook Line" from Maybrook Yard, NY to New Haven, CT, including the Poughkeepsie Bridge. However, Conrail then refused to spend anything to repair the 1974 fire damage. On November 2, 1984, after 10 1/2 years of abandonment, the railroad sold the bridge for $1 to a convicted-felon bank swindler named Gordon Schreiber Miller, of St. Davids, PA, to "get it off the books." (Incredibly, this was the personal decision of then-Conrail Chairman L. Stanley Crane, who imposed no sale conditions requiring liability insurance or maintenance.) On June 4, 1998, following Miller's and his successor Vito Moreno's nonpayment of Ulster and Dutchess County taxes on the bridge, Moreno deeded it to The Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge Company, Inc., a New York nonprofit corporation. The deeds were recorded in both Counties on June 5, 1998. This corporation will deed the bridge to the appropriate New York State entity by CY2009, for the new rail-trail project which will feature the bridge as its centerpiece.
Today, the span is closed to the public. On May 30, 2008, ground was formally broken for the Bridge's reconstruction. In late July, 2008, construction crews were busy removing the rails, ties and track decking from the bridge, as the first stage in its $25+ million conversion to a walkway over the Hudson River, which will become part of a rail trail from Hopewell Junction to the vicinity of Maybrook, NY.
The project has been separated into four phases:
Currently in the third phase, Walkway hopes to open the bridge by 2009, in time for the Hudson Quadricentennial Celebration.. The piers have been inspected and given a clean bill of health, and the decking is going down.
Upon the restoration completion, the bridge will become the longest elevated public park in the world. Walkway will hand the bridge over to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.