Built in 1888 to link New York and New England to the coal beds of Pennsylvania and the West, the steel-truss Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was the longest bridge in the world for a spell, stretching 6,768 feet (approximately 1.28 miles) over the Hudson River. A 1974 blaze, blamed on sparks from a passing train, damaged only 700 feet of the span's wooden decking. Repair, however, was too pricey for the bankrupt railroad company that owned the structure, and tearing it down would have been far more expensive. Instead they permanently halted railroad operations over it.
Today the bridge is the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The bridge deck is 212 feet above the Hudson River and provides spectacular views both upstream and down. Expanding 24 feet over land to 35 feet over the water, the deck used to fit a pair of railroad tracks. Now it sees a steady flow of walkers, joggers, skaters and bicyclists who drink in this new view, which opened to the public in late 2009.
It will one day be a linchpin in a 27-mile corridor of rail-trails and riverfront parks already built or planned in Ulster and Dutchess counties. The Hudson Valley Rail Trail's final mile in Highland connects to the bridge's east end. In Poughkeepsie, the Dutchess Rail Trail connects to the bridge at Parker Avenue and extends southeast for 13 miles.
The Walkway Over the Hudson started with a group of like-minded locals. In 1992 they formed an advocacy organization devoted to converting the bridge into a public walkway. About 15 years later, they had funding in place and the state was on board to manage and maintain the park. Construction was a considerable undertaking. The entire structure, including underwater piers, had to be assessed for stability. Existing railroad structures, such as walkways, ties and railings, were demolished to make way for the new deck's pre-cast concrete panels. Additional metal and foundation repairs were required to support the weight of the crane that would place the panels. Worker safety was a primary concern. Anyone working within 6 feet of the edge was required to wear a harness and lifeline. Select workers with climbing skills were identified as emergency responders in case of a problem.
No skateboards or motorized vehicles are allowed, except for motorized wheelchairs. Pets must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet. Restrooms are available at each end of the bridge. Benches and shaded areas are in the works. Lights have been installed for night-time events (the bridge can be reserved for events) and food vendors cater to hungry bridge users. In addition, a 20-story elevator opened in 2014, and there's a staircase on the Poughkeepsie side. Friends of the nonprofit organization that oversees such projects are also pursuing funds for a visitor center. Visit their website for more information.
To reach the trailhead in Poughkeepsie from I-84, take the Taconic State Parkway north. Exit on State Route 55 west toward Poughkeepsie. Turn right onto Garden Street. Turn left onto Parker Avenue. Parking for the walkway is on the right.
To reach the trailhead in Lloyd from I-87, take the exit for State Route 299 east. Turn right onto US Route 9W south through the village of Highland. Turn left onto Haviland Road. Parking is on the right.