During a snow storm on a gray November afternoon, officials with the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park unveiled the latest feature along the 1.28 mile pedestrian bridge — a pavilion to shelter volunteers during inclement weather.
Walkway volunteers, known as “ambassadors,” have been on the bridge since 2010 educating visitors about its history as an old railroad bridge. According to Susanne O’Neil, the park’s volunteer coordinator, the ambassadors have served rain or shine.
“They’re out here all the time,” O’Neil said, adding that the new pavilion will be “like a home base for them.”
Nov. 27’s special event also gave park leaders a chance to thank major donors to the bridge — including the first 1,381 people ever to donate money to renovate the old bridge into a usable path. Back then — before 2004 — a grassroots group headed by Bill Sepe raised money to resurface the train bridge with wooden planks.
“We have so much to be thankful for. We’re thankful for the 1,381 donors who bought planks early on, when this crazy vision was brought to life,” said Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, the Walkway’s executive director. “Those people stuck with that commitment. They stuck with the concept and the idea that the Walkway could be a reality, and here we are today.”
Those early donors gave what they could. Their donations usually tallied in at $10 or $20. The “plank donors” ended up bringing in $28,000. But philanthropists, bigwigs and politicians helped fund the rest of the $38 million it ultimately took to resurface the old Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge with concrete.
Walkway Over the Hudson’s former chairman, Fred Schaeffer, said he thought fondly about the early days. “It was about 20 years ago I first walked out on the bridge,” the former chairman said. “Bill Sepe took me out there and we talked about the project for six months.”
Schaeffer said he felt the old spirit of the homegrown fundraising to build a “people’s bridge” has never really left. The bridge itself was built in the late 1880s, and it stayed open until a catastrophic fire burned many of its wooden ties in 1974. Grassroots organizers assembled in the mid-1990s to transform what was then a derelict, burnt-out relic into a park.
Along with a ribbon-cutting for the Walkway West Pavilion officials also unveiled the plaque with the plank donors’ names over on the Highland side of the bridge. That’s a touch that made Schaeffer glad. “I’m happy after all these years we finally got some recognition for them.”
Some of those big donors, who came in later on, also got recognition. Dotting the Walkway are new bronze medallions for anyone who gave $10,000 or more to support improvements to the park — including the Charlotte Cunneen-Hackett Charitable Trust and the Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, among others.
Materials and labor for the west-side pavilion was entirely donated. Park volunteers will also use that shelter to store emergency equipment, wheelchairs, for those who need them, and merchandise.
Officials hope to open the Walkway East Pavilion, for volunteers on the Poughkeepsie side, in the next month, but other plans for improvements to the park are in the works. Eventually, a visitor center and a 21-story waterfront elevator will be added to the park.
Sepe — the man largely responsible for kick-starting the Walkway idea — did not attend last week’s ceremony.