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The Poughkeepsie Bridge

[Excerpts from the application nominating the bridge to the National Register of Historic Places, 1978]

(1) Historic Name: The Great Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge.

(2) Location: The Hudson River, Poughkeepsie/Highland, Dutchess/Ulster counties, New York.

(3) Classification: Structure category; private ownership; unoccupied status; restricted accessibility.

(4) Owner of Property: Consolidated Rail Corporation.

(5) Location of Legal Description: Dutchess County Office Building Records Room, Poughkeepsie, New York.

(6) Representation in Existing Surveys: Historic Resources of the Hudson, January 1969, Hudson River Valley Commission, Albany, New York.

(7) Description: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge crosses the Hudson River at a point approximately equidistant from New York City and Albany.

The overall length of the bridge, including approaches, is 6,767 feet, divided as follows into three major parts: the Poughkeepsie approach, four deck-girder and 21 Warren deck-truss spans, 2,640 feet; river crossing, seven deck-truss spans, 3,094 feet; Ulster County approach, nine Warren deck-truss spans and one deck-girder, 1,033 feet. The minimum clear height, between mean high water and the bottom of the deepest truss, is 130 feet, while the total height from foundation to base of rail is 342 feet. The seven trusses of the river crossing are arranged symmetrically about a central pair of cantilevers and a suspended span, the three together having a length of 546 feet. From end to center span on each side there are, in order, an anchor span 201 feet long, a pair of cantilevers and a floating span together 548 feet long, and a connecting simple span 525 feet long and 88 feet deep. (Condit, American Building Art, p. 313).

The Ulster County approach, on the west, is characterized by woodland, while the Poughkeepsie approach, on the east, is urban residential.

The bridge is riveted steel. The first and sixth piers, on the west and east shores respectively, are concrete. However, the four river piers consist of timber crib and grillage (115' x 100') filled with concrete and broken stone, surmounted by rock-faced granite blocks (40' x 80'). The 180-foot trestles, with lattice bracing, rest on the river piers; their counterparts over land diminish in size until the track meets ground. Originally double-tracked, the bridge was subsequently gauntleted (1917-1918), and later, a single track was laid (1959) for increased stability against eccentric loading. The road bed is comprised of steel rails laid over wooden cross ties which are attached to the bridge superstructure of spans and viaducts. On either side is wooden plank decking, laid longitudinally. Two simple iron railings delimit the bridge.

The bridge has been unused since May 8, 1974, when a fire caused substantial damage to a portion of the deck.

(8) Significance: The building of the Great Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge encountered both political and physical obstacles. However, two respected and powerful Poughkeepsians were able to persuade individuals to subscribe, bridge companies to take contracts, and the state legislature to renew the charter, during the 12 years that it took to see the bridge to completion. As a result, the bridge was "one of the great bridges of the [19th] century" (Condit, p. 157), a significant transportation achievement and a symbol of progress to Poughkeepsians.

The 1860's was a progressive era in Poughkeepsie. The river front was crowded with a variety of industries, real estate was booming, the country's first sand filtration water system was being designed, New York Central was improving the successful east shore railroad, and finally the Poughkeepsie and Eastern Railroad became a reality. Soon after the latter was complete, the possibility of a bridge spanning the Hudson River was suggested.

As early as 1868, John I. Platt, editor of the Poughkeepsie Eagle, published an article promoting the bridge, bringing the idea to public attention. The importance of such a bridge was two-fold: to introduce a crossing over the Hudson between New York City and Albany, and by doing so, to lure the nation's vast coal supply from the Pennsylvania mines through Poughkeepsie to the industries of New England. By 1871, Poughkeepsie's charismatic mayor, Harvey G. Eastman, founder and president of Eastman Business School, had joined the crusade and, together with Platt and P. P. Dickinson, engineer, he drafted a charter for the bridge company, which became law on May 11, 1871. Among the incorporators were many notable Poughkeepsians, including Platt, Eastman and Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College.

From the onset, political and economic difficulties hampered the construction of the bridge. During the first year, an amendment to the charter was necessary to change the design from a suspension to a cantilever bridge. This was accomplished in the face of great controversy; boatmen feared that the bridge piers would cause serious accidents. In the course of events, Harvey Eastman was elected to the State Assembly to insure passage of the amendment. Next, the incorporators sought funds to inaugurate the project. At this time, the Pennsylvania Railroad was investigating an expeditious route to New England, and upon John Platt's persuasion, agreed to subscribe to the bridge stock. J. Edgar Thompson, president of the railroad, and A. J. Dennis, chairman of the investigation committee, bought $1,100,000 worth of stock, which was well over half of the total project cost. In September 1873, a board of directors, forming the Poughkeepsie Bridge Company, was elected, including Thompson, Dennis, Platt, Eastman, and Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate of Pittsburgh. Soon after, a gala celebration was held. Not only the prominent members of the board, but also the mayors of Boston and Hartford, and the governor of Connecticut were in attendance. However, under the strain of the financial panic of 1873 and the death of J. Edward Thompson, a major shareholder, the scheme collapsed.

After Thompson's death and the subsequent withdrawal of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Eastman and Platt sought backing for the bridge in New England. In 1875, a committee from the Boston Chamber of Commerce visited Poughkeepsie, studied the proposition and agreed to the plans. Bridge companies showed interest in the project once again, and the American Bridge Company of Chicago was contracted to raise money and undertake the construction. Finally, building began on November 14, 1876. During the ensuing two years, work on the river piers was commenced, but the enterprise was again abandoned as the result of construction and financial difficulties, which caused the demise of the American Bridge Company.

Although Harvey Eastman died in 1878, the Poughkeepsie boosters never lost sight of their plans. They succeeded in extending the completion deadline from 1879 to 1883, and later to 1888. 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, which had completed the cantilever bridge at Niagara, 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.

Work did not begin until October of 1886, necessitating another extension for the completion deadline.

Against this the most determined opposition sprang up on the part of boatmen, rival cities and the Storm King Bridge promoters. All the newspapers of Albany and Troy and most of those in New York joined this movement, and the New York Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade and Transportation, the Produce Exchange and other bodies, sent representatives to Albany to lobby in favor of a bill . . . to repeal the act of 1872 and compel the removal of the piers already partly built. (Platt, History of Poughkeepsie, p. 228)

Once again, the bridge promoters met the challenge. This time, John I. Platt was a member of the Assembly and successfully defeated the opposition's arguments. Another bill providing an extension was signed by the governor in the summer of 1888, just two months before the last pin was driven into the bridge. Although the structure was finished on August 29, 1888, the approaches were not completed until later that year, and the first train did not cross until December 29th.

Application prepared by: Townley McElhiney Sharp, Consultant, Hurley, N.Y.
Edited by: Raymond Smith, Division for Historic Preservation, Parks & Recreation, Albany, N.Y.