If you live anywhere in the New Paltz area, you probably noticed a deep rumbling in the earth around 9:27 a.m. on January 25. That was the moment when the old iron bridge carrying Route 213 across the Rondout Creek at the western edge of the High Falls hamlet went crashing down into the waters below, just upstream from the falls. Reports of the reverberation came in from as far south as Gardiner. In High Falls itself, the noise was startlingly loud. And if your travels frequently involve using 213 as your connection between Rosendale and Stone Ridge, you’re probably already familiar with the detours (via Berme Road southwards or Cottekill Road northwards) that you’ll need to use until June, when the new bridge is expected to be fully installed.
Living with major repairs to aging infrastructure may involve getting used to inconveniences, but Carole and Richard Eppley of the High Falls Conservancy saw the rebuilding process as an opportunity to celebrate the hamlet’s long and distinguished history as a place of bridges and aqueducts. With support from Sevan Melikyan of the nearby Wired Gallery, which previously had the “Chagall in High Falls” exhibit installed in the High Falls Emporium Gallery Space, the Eppleys have transformed the gallery at 10 Old State Route 213 into a stroll through industrial archaeology going back to the late 18th century, when the first covered bridge over the Rondout was built. According to the 1796 deed map of the site that’s on display, the waterway was known as the “Rondout Kill” to the largely Dutch settlers back then, and there were once mills on both banks.
There’s more of a paper trail spanning the centuries, including early photographs of the second wooden covered bridge, built in 1844; the first double-arch aqueduct, built in 1826 to convey Rosendale cement from mines on Bruceville Road to the D & H Canal; and its replacement, designed in 1849 to accommodate widened canal locks by a Prussian-born engineer who would go on to worldwide fame for building the Brooklyn Bridge, John A. Roebling. But the showpieces of the “Bridges of High Falls” exhibit are heavy metal artifacts of later spans. Two big wrought-iron signs bearing the names of the commissioners and builders of the bridge that spanned the Creek from 1879 to 1933 are on loan from the Ulster County Historical Society. And the pièce de résistance is a 1,200-pound section of girder salvaged by New York State Department of Transportation contractors before the 1933-vintage through-truss bridge came down in January.
“Cassidy Barnes, who is a steelworker and has a workshop in High Falls, and Garrett Harrington, who runs a farm in High Falls: They did it, just the two of them, volunteering their time and equipment. In the course of watching them accomplish this feat, I must have died several times of heart attack and resuscitated!” Melikyan reports. “Truly, without them, we wouldn’t have this piece in the show.”
What makes the girder segment extra-special is the fact that it was elaborately decorated with graffiti by some unidentified local artist — art that was previously only visible by a rare few from underneath the bridge. One side of the piece is covered with amoebalike blobs of red, pink, yellow and periwinkle paint. The other face sports a haloed heart split by lightning bolts. “Tags” — names, nicknames or initials of graffiti artists, including one who identified himself as “the Saltiest Salt of Them All” — fill in the borders.
Also on view is a video montage by Rosendale-based photographer Carl Cox, who captured many phases of the dismantling of the 1933 bridge, including the moment of “implosion.” Visitors can see workers drilling holes in the concrete abutments to insert dynamite charges — although, according to curator Richard Eppley, the metal span was severed by wrapping the girders with coils of copper tubing that “became superhot and melted the steel.” The supports broke off cleanly, with the whole metal span falling straight down into the Creek. “Within 24 hours, by law, the DOT had to have the entire superstructure — all these pieces of metal–– out of the water,” says Eppley. “It was all gone by 10:30 a.m. the next day.”
The video loop should hold special fascination for young children who love trucks and construction machinery, with impressive footage of heavy equipment lifting enormous slabs of reinforced concrete roadway and tossing and tamping down great masses of rebar as if it were so much spaghetti. Viewers of any age will come away with a renewed sense of respect for these experts who make demolition an artform.
“The Bridges of High Falls: A Multimedia Art and Story Exhibit” had its opening reception on Saturday, February 11, and will be open for public viewing from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through May 14. As preserving oral history is also part of the mission of the High Falls Conservancy, there will be three “story gatherings” at the exhibition from 4 to 6 p.m. on three upcoming Saturdays. Locals with long memories are invited to share their reminiscences on the themes of “High Falls: Center of the Universe” on February 25, “Bread and Circuses” on March 18 and “High Falls Eccentrics” on (fittingly enough) April 1.
Meanwhile, the Eppleys, who have resided in High Falls for about five years now, are busy negotiating with the DOT and Central Hudson, advocating for the new bridge under construction to become the linchpin of a system of “Creekwalk” waterfront trails converging on the historic hamlet. On their wish list are a walkway with a view of the falls on the downstream side of the bridge, sidewalks with old-fashioned wrought-iron streetlamps on both sides of Main Street and interpretive signage highlighting the hamlet’s history as a hub of transportation and hydropower. “We’re thrilled with the opportunity to do some longer-range stuff,” says Richard.
For more info about “The Bridges of High Falls” and the other projects of the High Falls Conservancy, visit www.thehighfallsconservancy.org, www.facebook.com/highfallsconservancy and www.facebook.com/events/1643586515935215.