A bridge is a powerful symbol. When we dream of crossing a bridge, that’s usually a sign of going through a significant change in life — of crossing some Rubicon, leaving our past behind. We also use “building bridges” as a metaphor for repairing rifts between people, between nations. The latter was the theme chosen for the opening ceremonies of the brand-new, as-yet-unnamed Route 213 bridge across the Rondout Creek in downtown High Falls last Saturday.
The new bridge was actually opened to automobile traffic by midafternoon on Friday, but the official ribbon-cutting was timed to coincide with High Falls Fair Day on Saturday morning, July 8. Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack and Marbletown town supervisor Mike Warren wielded the shears. First across was a line of vintage cars, including half a dozen early-model Ford Mustangs from the 1960s in mint condition, followed by several first-responder vehicles from the Marbletown area. Supervisor Warren later drove his own John Deere tractor over the span.
But the first hour or so of the proceedings was choreographed and conducted primarily by elders of the Ramapough Lenape nation, descendants of the Rondout Valley’s indigenous Munsee inhabitants. Celebrants gathered on the creekbank between the bridge and the falls, where a drum circle of native musicians chanted a song of thanks and the purifying scent of burning sage filled the air. Members of the High Falls community lined up to toss pinches of tobacco and cedar into a portable firepit, and a group of Munsee women performed a purification ceremony at the water’s edge while the drummers performed a “water healing song.”
Postupack had brought with her a replica of a wampum belt (the original is stored in a climate-controlled vault in the Ulster County Archives) symbolizing the Nicolls Treaty, an agreement made in 1665 to quell hostilities between the Esopus people and the newly installed English governor of New York State, Richard Nicolls. Expressing her hopes that the new structure would prove to be “a bridge that brings people from different lands together,” Postupack ceremoniously handed the wampum over to Ramapough chief Vincent Eagle Spirit Mann. In return, Chief Mann presented feathers to both the county clerk and the town supervisor.
According to both Postupack and the chief, the treaty was ceremonially renewed frequently in the decades immediately following its adoption, but this had not happened in recent years. The exchange of gifts on the banks of the Rondout was thus intended as a renewal of the pact and a gesture of healing. Relating how his forebears had carried with them 17 sticks to the original treaty negotiations, each one symbolizing a time that their tribe had been injured by the European settlers, Chief Mann noted that such a burden, brought up to date, would now be “too many to carry.” So he said that he was bringing “humility” with him instead this time.
Aaron Schulte, pastor of the nearby Community Church of High Falls, invoked a similar theme of reconciliation as he stepped up to bless the new bridge. He expressed the hope that High Falls would remain a place “where walls are torn down so that bridge can be built,” evoking a cheer from the crowd. He prayed for safe travels for all who cross the new structure, and that neighbors whose livelihoods had been threatened by the six-month closure of the Rondout Creek crossing would be able to “put their lives back on a firm foundation, like this bridge.”
Among the businesses most impacted by the closure was the High Falls Food Co-op, located right at the bridge’s western terminus, on the corner of Lucas Avenue and Route 213. The Co-op’s weekend supervisor, Kristin Avery, expressed her relief as she laid out free snack samples for Fair Day visitors. “It’s been very difficult for us with the detour,” she said. “The bridge affected business, but we’ve learned to cope with it. With the bridge open, we hope that things will get back to normal or even better…. We hope to be around for another 40 years, if not more.”
As of Saturday, things weren’t entirely back to normal; although pedestrians could now stroll over the bridge from the High Falls hamlet to the Food Coop, the new ten-foot-wide sidewalk was only complete on the bridge span itself. Concrete still needs to be poured on the bridge’s aprons, and a great deal of construction debris still needs to be cleaned up. But it became clear immediately that the new structure – which has no overhead trusses to mar the view of the falls – will make the downtown area much more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.
Not since the old 1933-vintage bridge was dynamited on January 25 had such a flow of traffic been seen or heard in the High Falls hamlet. Automobiles were parked all along Main and most of the side streets for the festival, their occupants strolling about, patronizing local businesses and taking in the sights. Second Street, extending from the Depuy Canal House to the Community Church, was closed to cars entirely, with a flatbed truck at the northern end serving as a portable stage for live bands who included Breakaway with Robin Baker. Mr. Oh, the Fabulous Hackers and Magic Mooka.
There were a dunk tank, a petting zoo and plenty of food and craft vendor booths, and the usual Sunday flea market in nearby Grady Park was open a day early. The Community Church hosted a chicken barbecue, and businesses lining Main Street and Mohonk Road were offering special discounts, snacks and giveaways. The firehouse was thrown open to visitors, with young children allowed to climb into the cab of a firetruck for a photo opportunity and older ones able to participate in a hands-on fire safety simulation experience.
Unannounced, the Canal House — acquired last year by the D & H Canal Museum and Historical Society — was also opened to the public for the day, with a few items from the museum’s collections hung on the walls, along with sketches of possible layouts for the new exhibition rooms. Chef John Novi’s famous kitchen is slated to become an event space, and the building’s original main entrance will be restored. Attendees were invited to write comments and suggestions on draft floor plans, while kids could look at pictures of children who worked on the canal in the olden days and listen to stories about them.
The DePuy Canal House’s restaurant days may be over, but the beloved Egg’s Nest is scheduled to be reopened under new management before the summer of 2017 is through. New co-owner Cristina Silver was on the premises for High Falls Fair Day, doling out lemonade and chatting with visitors but not yet allowing anyone inside. We’ll bring you coverage of the tavern/restaurant’s renovation as soon as we know more. Meanwhile, downtown High Falls is back in business!