THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Keeping your feet high above the Hudson

The 1.28-mile railroad bridge built in 1889 is now transformed into the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The 1.28-mile railroad bridge built in 1889 is now transformed into the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. (Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

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POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — “This is gorgeous!’’ exclaims Mary Bentivegna of East Brunswick, N.J., flinging her arm toward the broad, blue band of the Hudson River, more than 200 feet below. “It’s something you don’t see just anywhere — certainly not in New Jersey.’’

On this dazzling morning, flecks of orange and crimson dot the west riverbank against a cerulean wash of sky, as Bentivegna and a friend from Brooklyn savor their first foray onto the Walkway Over the Hudson, the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.

The walkway — 6,768 feet, or 1.28 miles — connects the small industrial city of Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson’s east bank, with the hamlet of Highland, on the west. Its ribbon-cutting last year marked the second incarnation of this structure, which started out as a railroad bridge in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower was erected. Then, too, the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge merited a superlative: the longest cantilevered and truss span bridge in the world. During World War II, when it had its heaviest use, 3,500 rail cars, most of them filled with US troops, thundered over it every day. A fire in 1974 ended the first chapter of the bridge’s history.

Like Manhattan’s High Line, another former railroad bridge-turned-linear park, this bridge owes its rebirth to preservation-minded citizens. In 1992, they organized to resurrect it for pedestrians and cyclists. (The bridge now forms part of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail.) The nonprofit Walkway Over the Hudson eventually bought the structure and raised private and public money to renovate it, paving the deck with 973 concrete panels weighing up to 15 tons apiece. New York State now manages it as a State Historic Park.

The walkway lacks the High Line’s high design — no artful benches or plantings interrupt the broad deck. (The organization’s website says that seating and other amenities will be added as financing allows.) This experience is all about the views beyond the stout steel railings — and the public is loving it.

In the first three months after opening, about 400,000 people (an average of 4,500 people a day) came to sample the scenery. Even on this crisp Wednesday morning, a surprising number and variety of people have stepped out: walkers of retirement age zipped into windbreakers, mothers pushing strollers, dogs tugging their humans, bare-legged young runners, and the occasional helmeted cyclist. But the deck is far from crowded, and it’s easy to imagine that hundreds of people could be up here at once without rubbing elbows.

At the tree-lined Poughkeepsie entrance, a cluster of high school-age boys in running clothes bursts out of the leafy shade, their rubber soles clapping the pavement. Before the span reaches the water, it crosses through a residential neighborhood and over a four-lane highway (Route 9), and an active railroad track, all visible through the black wire fence that towers 8 to 10 feet over the shoulder-high steel railings. But when the span reaches the river, the fence ends, and nothing obstructs the big view of water below.

About half a mile to the south, the towers of the FDR Mid-Hudson River Bridge gleam like steeples. To the north, the river bends west at the horizon. Midstream, buoys mark a shipping channel. Poughkeepsie’s industrial waterfront connects the two bridges on the east, but straight across, the bank is all but undeveloped save for a shore-hugging railroad. Linda Pedersen, of neighboring Goshen, N.Y., on the more rural west side, says that walking west to east is “like going from the country to the city — you can hear the difference in the noise.’’

At this elevation, though, the noise is a distant whoosh of traffic, with the occasional rumble of a passing train. Not many people are moving at city speed up here, either. Even determined walkers pause along the railings to gaze down on the backs of seagulls riding the breeze. Erwin Kraft has pulled his scooter over beside the south railing and is squinting into the sun. This is his third visit with a small group from his assisted-living home in Millbrook, N.Y. Although he spent most of his life on Long Island, Kraft came often to visit his grandmother in this area when he was a child. He points down at a compact, metal-roofed building on the Poughkeepsie shore. “There used to be a Vassar Brothers brewery right there,’’ he says in a wistful tone. Then he brightens. “See down there, near the other bridge? There’s a restaurant, Shadows on the Hudson. We go there for lunch. It’s terrific.’’

The parking lots, bathrooms, and the bridge are fully accessible, and several other people are making the crossing in wheelchairs or using canes or walkers. One frail-looking man is moving west to east with a walker, taking one gingerly step at a time. Puffing, he glances up and smiles.

A younger man in a ball cap and sunglasses leans against the north railing, staring upriver. Sean Kelly moved to Poughkeepsie from Roslindale, Mass., about five years ago. As a food wholesaler, he often drives along the river, and he keeps an eye out for boats. Today he spotted what he thought was “a big yacht’’ and came up to take in the craft from a better vantage point.

The white ship Kelly is watching — the only one in sight in either direction — is plowing a V through the water. As it passes beneath, it looks more like a sightseeing ship than the sleek yacht it resembled at a distance. But such surprises are part of the fascination of watching boats.

Kelly does not seem disappointed. “When I first moved here, the bridge was decrepit, an eyesore,’’ he says. “I admit, I was all for tearing it down. But now, I’m very glad they ended up saving it.’’

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at janeroybrown@verizon.net.

If You Go

What to do
Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park
East Entrance: 61 Parker Ave.
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
845-834-2867
www.walkway.org
Year round 7 a.m. to sunset, weather permitting (check for closures on facebook.com/walkwayoverthehudson or twitter.com/wothshp). Free.
Paid parking lot ($5 for 4 hours) with handicapped-accessible bathrooms, at 61 Parker Ave. Walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading. Dogs on leashes allowed.
Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association, Inc.
12 Church St., Highland, N.Y.
845-691-2066
www.hudsonvalleyrailtrail.net
Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site
Springwood estate & FDR Presidential Library and Museum
4097 Albany Post Road/ Route 9
Hyde Park, N.Y.
845-229-5320 800-337-8474
www.nps.gov/hofr/
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
Val-Kill estate
Route 9G (2 miles east of FDR NHS), Hyde Park
845-486-1966
www.nps.gov/elro/
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
119 Vanderbilt Park Road/Route 9, Hyde Park
(2 miles north of FDR NHS)
845-229-7770
www.nps.gov/vama/