“A great day for Rosendale” is how supervisor Jeanne Walsh characterized the grand opening on Saturday, June 29 of the renovated railroad trestle spanning the Rondout Creek, linking the northern and southern portions of the nearly completed 24-mile Wallkill Valley Rail Trail from Gardiner to Kingston. Four years after the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) and the Open Space Institute (OSI) teamed up to purchase 11 ½ miles of railbed in the towns of Rosendale and Ulster, including the 940-foot-long, 150-foot-high trestle, it finally became possible for walkers, cyclists, cross-country skiers and equestrians to traverse the Rondout Gorge safely without a long detour via local streets.
The stretch of trail leading from the Binnewater Kiln parking lot along the flank of Joppenbergh Mountain to the north end of the trestle was still a bit muddy Saturday morning, following more than a week of muggy, thunderstormy weather. But shortly before the 11:30 a.m. scheduled start to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, cicadas began to trill as the clouds parted, the sun peeked out and a refreshing breeze swept the gorge. Anticipation was mounting and smiles abundant among the gathering crowd of public officials, land trust spokespersons, volunteers, trail-users and local residents of all ages.
“I’m excited to go over the bridge. I might go to New Paltz,” said Vincent Miller of Port Ewen, whose bicycle was poised to be the first over the reopened structure. “I lived down the street in Whiteport when I was a kid, and I always wanted to go over this, but I was scared to.” Still a regular rail trail visitor, Miller speculated that the new link would stimulate tourism and economic growth in the Rosendale hamlet. “Maybe it’ll open up some businesses, and help some that are there already. There are two bike shops in Rosendale.”
The ceremony got underway with a spirited rendition of the Phil Ochs anthem “Power and Glory” by the Woodcrest Community Children’s Choir, reflecting the key role that volunteers from the Woodcrest Bruderhof played in the restoration of the bridge surface. Then Chris Bernabo, an environmental scientist who serves as the vice president WVLT’s board of directors, took over the microphone and served as emcee for the rest of the proceedings.
Bernabo began by sketching the history of the original trestle’s construction in 1872, when it was known as the “Iron Wonder.” Fellow WVLT board member Hensley Evans followed with a rundown of more recent events, leading up to the past month’s all-volunteer replacement of the trestle’s surface with natural-looking-but-weatherproof composite decking. Erik Kulleseid, executive director of OSI’s Alliance for New York State Parks, hailed the project as the beginning of “a new era in OSI’s work” that will focus more on the refurbishing of aging infrastructure for outdoor recreation than on simple land acquisition.
Most of the speechifying consisted of thanks being offered to the project’s many supporters, from government entities and not-for-profit organizations to financial donors and the large and dedicated volunteer corps. Among the long list of people to be thanked, the speakers singled out philanthropists Jim and Mary Ottaway for supplying the “lead gift” for the capital campaign, attorney Allan Bowdery for overseeing the engineering review and furniture-maker Rob Hare as chief wrangler of volunteers. Evans cited WVLT executive director Christine DeBoer as “an absolutely tireless force” in the project, and Kulleseid called OSI general counsel Bob Anderberg “the guy with the biggest heart in the Gunks.”
Then it was the politicians’ turn to speak. Newly elected Republican congressman Chris Gibson predicted that in the current challenging economy, “We’re going to rely less on multinational corporations” and more on local initiatives to create jobs in the mid-Hudson, including projects like restoring the trestle that promote tourism. Ulster County executive Mike Hein also pronounced himself a believer in “what rail trails can do from an economic perspective.” He reminisced about being at the opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson just a few years ago, saying that he hadn’t realized then that the Walkway was “only a tiny step” toward an extensive network of trails that will eventually connect the Catskills with Dutchess County and beyond. “And at the very heart of it will be Rosendale, where we stand today,” said Hein, evoking loud cheers.
The final speaker, fittingly, was Supervisor Walsh, who thanked local officials and residents for their roles in the project, including addressing such mundane-but-crucial concerns as ensuring that ample off-street parking would be available near the trestle. She especially praised Rosendale highway superintendent Carl Hornbeck and his crew for their quick work in making the new parking lot by the old kiln on Binnewater Road usable in time for the opening. Walsh was the first public speaker at the event to utter a phrase that seems likely to become a popular epithet for the trestle, calling it the “Walkway Over the Rondout.”
After another musical interlude with the Woodcrest choir singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (leaving out the more controversial verses), Walsh, assisted by Hein and Gibson, wielded the giant pair of scissors for the actual ribbon-cutting. They then invited the assembled guests to cross the span at last.
The eager crowd didn’t need to be asked twice. So many walkers surged forward that the first groups of cyclists had to walk their bicycles across. “Look at that gorgeous view!” was a common cry, as aficionados of the rail trail got their first-ever glimpse up the gorge from the northern half of the bridge, whose surface had been stripped even when the southern half, once intended as a bungee-jumping platform, was still in use. An eight-foot chain-link fence blocks the sides of the trestle where it crosses Route 213, but beyond that point there was nothing to mar the view of the brown, rain-swollen creek and the lush green vegetation along its banks, peppered with orange daylilies. The rhythms of Fre Atlast’s community drum circle echoed up from near St. Peter’s Church, as two kayakers played in the rapids below the bridge that were temporarily deep enough to accommodate their crafts.
The atmosphere indeed resembled a street festival in this self-proclaimed Festival Town, as strollers spotted old friends halfway across the trestle and stopped to chat, pairs of Rosendalers walked their dogs, serious-looking mountain bikers in full technical gear checked out the terrain and families plotted the rest of their day’s expeditions. About the only person conspicuously absent was the trestle’s former owner, John Rahl, who reportedly has had a contentious relationship with WVLT and OSI throughout the project.
“It feels good,” said nine-year-old Silas Schwartz, who lives on Mountain Road on the south side of the creek crossing. “This is farther than I’ve ever been on the bridge. I’d like to ride all the way around here.” First, though, Schwartz and his family intended to head down to Willow Kiln Park, behind the Rosendale Theatre, where a big community celebration was just getting into gear at noon.
The bluegrass/old-timey music trio Yard Sale was performing as hikers began to assemble for guided tours up the Joppenbergh trail that begins at the park. Folks from the WVLT were holding a raffle and a silent auction to raise funds to finish off the capital campaign for the trestle renovation. Kids were tie-dyeing Track the Trestle tee-shirts, getting their faces painted and decorating their bicycles and scooters for the big bike parade back up to the trestle, which the Rosendale Brass Band was scheduled to lead off at 3 p.m.
WVLT’s DeBoer, who was hired right around the beginning of the trestle campaign and has been a prime mover throughout the process, looked tired but jubilant as she snapped pictures of the event and its festive aftermath. “This is four years coming, and we’re absolutely thrilled for Rosendale and the surrounding communities,” she said, admitting, “This has been my baby.” Saturday may have been DeBoer’s long-awaited day to shine, but there’s no denying that the Rosendale trestle is everybody’s baby now.