The Carmine Liberta Bridge spans the Wallkill River at the bottom of Main Street in New Paltz, providing a connection between stunning natural beauty and a bustling village, as well as a connection to communities beyond the river’s shores. As work begins to replace the span, town historian Carol Johnson has been digging into the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection for an exhibit to be called “Ode to the Bridge.” She provided access to those records for this historical overview.
In the beginning
The county’s board of supervisors approved the creation of the first bridge, which was covered and made of wood, on April 11, 1845. It needed to be repaired in 1869, and a notice was placed in the paper on January 28 that “persons will be obliged to cross the Kill on the ice for a few days.” It wasn’t reopened until March, and it might have taken still longer if George DuBois hadn’t advanced payment for expenses out of his own pocket. “We hope that the taxpayers of the town will be equally prompt in paying him for the monies that he has advanced,” a journalist wrote. “He deserves it.”
While it’s not clear how much it cost to build or how long it took to construct, by 1878 its roof was in need of repair, and the contract was awarded to John L. Rosenkrans, “His bid being 16 cents the lowest,” according to reports at the time.
It wasn’t until 1891 that the commissioner of highways approved a new, iron bridge. The wooden span was set afire, and what wasn’t destroyed was dismantled by carpenters. The entire spectacle could doubtless have been viewed from the temporary bridge which was constructed ahead of time to ensure that ice crossings wouldn’t be required. The contract was for $6,770, and according to one published report, “One thing good about the building of the bridge, it will not increase taxes because the money is on hand,” a testimony to the thriftiness of those elected officials. Town supervisor Hasbrouck also promised a full accounting when the bridge was complete, but if any such report was made, it’s not in the archives.
The new bridge had sidewalks, presumably to keep pedestrians out of the way of horses. Nevertheless, speeding was already considered a problem by 1894, when it was announced that “a sign has been placed at each end of the bridge across the Wallkill stating that any one crossing the bridge faster than a walk will be fined five dollars. The practice of trotting across the bridge should never have been allowed.”
In what was becoming a tradition, the first iron bridge was pushed to the very limits of its usefulness. The weight limit was reduced to six tons in 1937, and again to three tons in 1940. Talk of replacing it with a stone bridge, to reflect the already-historic stone houses on nearby Huguenot Street, started circulating in 1938, but it was soon dismissed as too expensive. Engineers advised that a bridge of that length would need a costly support column in the center, and the nearest quarries were too far for hauling the stone to be cost-effective.
The existing bridge
A contract to build the present span was signed on January 5, 1940, at a cost of $49,781, although a later report indicate it actually cost $54,358.90. The old iron bridge was left in place during construction of the new, which took far longer than expected. The ambitious project — which involved damming the river to place the supports — was delayed by torrential rains, severe winter weather and striking workers; it wasn’t completed until 1941. The first major repairs were announced in 1990, but work did not begin until spring of 1991 as the bridge was closed entirely while old concrete panels were replaced with wood. The $97,000 project was heralded as the salvation of the bridge, and “will add 35-50 years to its life span.” At the time, the bridge’s weight limit was downgraded to 15 tons.
Naming of the bridge
It was not until the Wallkill had been bridged for a full 161 years that anyone thought to name the bridge after someone. The idea was Butch Dener’s, and the man he sought to honor was Carmine Liberta. Dener remembers Liberta as a “Sicilian mensch,” a person who had old-fashioned sensibilities and a strong community ethic. Dener saw that ethic personally when he was in dire need of a liver transplant, and Liberta would stop by unexpectedly and tell Dener’s wife, Barrie, to get out of the house for a few hours and take a break from caring for her husband. It was also evident in how Liberta took an unofficial leadership role among senior citizens at the time.
“He was an IBM retiree,” Dener said, “and when he heard someone in church talking about things that needed fixing at home, he’d show up later in the week and take care of it.” Liberta also took it upon himself to drive widows to doctor appointments. “He would walk them to the door, but he would never go inside,” Dener said, because “he didn’t want to compromise their reputation.”
Carmine Liberta is the reason why the village’s Memorial Day parade is on May 30, not the last Monday of the month. When the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971, Liberta would have none of it. As Dener remembers, “Carm said the parade is on May 30, and it starts at 6 o’clock.” End of discussion.
Liberta was also active in politics, and served as vice chair of the Republican Committee for 25 years. As New Paltz began to shift from a one-party to two-party town, and then to near-total Democratic control, “Some people only saw the ‘R’ next to his name,” Dener said. While then-supervisor Toni Hokanson supported naming the bridge after Liberta for his accomplishments, a minority of board members were opposed. Nevertheless, the necessary local support was achieved for county legislators to make it a reality.
Even so, with the construction of a new bridge some village residents broached the subject of letting the name die with the old, and finding a new person to honor. Suggestions in a lively Facebook discussion ranged from Sojourner Truth to Jason West. Dener was vehemently opposed to the idea, and enough others found the idea disrespectful that it never gained any traction. An assistant to County Executive Mike Hein confirmed that the new bridge will retain the name Carmine Liberta Memorial Bridge.
On the village side of the bridge is mounted a plaque that has Carmine Liberta’s image and some information about him. Dener paid for it with his own money, and convinced county workers to mount it when it was named a decade ago. It will be carefully removed from the old structure and installed on the new when it’s completed. The plaque also serves as something of a shrine for Liberta, and since it was installed Dener has ensured that an American flag is attached to it. Since they disappear occasionally, by his count he’s placed 48 flags there to date.
The current bridge is also at the very limits of its useful life, and a new piece of guardrail was installed last year to keep vehicles from further damaging a beam that’s all but gone underneath. It will be torn down once another temporary bridge is put into place.
According to County Executive Hein, the temporary bridge installation is expected in early July, with a full transition of traffic by August. Traffic will remain two lanes, and there will be no street or bridge closures due to the work. Traffic coming off Huguenot Street will become right-turn only.
The new version of the Carmine Liberta Memorial Bridge is expected to cost $2.5 million.