Bridges not too far: A brief history of the spans that unite us

Considered by many to be the jewel of the Hudson River bridges, the Mid-Hudson Bridge was created by the famous bridge designer Ralph Modjeski. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Each of the six bridges that cross the Hudson in our readership – from the Bear Mountain Bridge in the south to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the north – has its own complex story rife with conflict, character and destiny. For the better part of two centuries, bridge-building represented the absolute cutting edge of engineering technology and modern construction processes. Bridges were vast infrastructural undertakings with enormous implications, and their financing was no less complex and risky than their design and construction, as numerous vested parties (and their sometimes-vociferous opponents) played a role in each bridge’s lengthy and complicated birth.

A single bridge could alter the course of an entire industry (locomotive and ferries, for example). The impact and repercussions of a new bridge extended far beyond the neighboring communities that were invariably transformed by it; a bridge across the Hudson could affect the freight and travel patterns of the entire Eastern Seaboard, with implications nationwide. On the local level, each bridge had a radical impact upon population, development, business and work, tourism, natural aesthetics, the patterns of daily life and more. In this light, each bridge probably deserves a book of its own, but historian Kathryn W. Burke’s richly illustrated Hudson River Bridges is a good place to start.


The building of the majestic and architecturally diverse Hudson automotive spans (ten all together) came in two great waves. In a hectic and, one would assume, loud period of just over a decade, 1924 to 1935, the first five spans were built. After a 20-year calm (and a really big war), major changes in population, technology and business sparked the second great wave of bridge construction: four of them in an eight-year period between 1955 and 1963. Since then, things have been mostly quiet. Before the new $4 billion Mario M. Cuomo Tappan Zee Bridge was completed in 2017, the most recent action across the river was the addition of the second span of the Hamilton Fish Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in 1980.

Among the five automotive bridges in our region, all of which are managed by the New York State Bridge Authority (NYSBA), three of the major types of bridges are represented: cantilever (Rip Van Winkle, Newburgh-Beacon); suspension (Bear Mountain, Mid-Hudson) and truss (Kingston-Rhinecliff). While these automotive bridges were all 20th-century constructs built over a 40-year period, the proof-of-concept original span came much earlier.

Poughkeepsie Railway Bridge

An extension of the post-Civil War building and infrastructure boom in the US, the great Poughkeepsie Railway Bridge was begun in 1873, long delayed because of an economic depression, finally resumed in 1886 and opened for use on January 1, 1889 as part of the Maybrook line of the New Haven Railroad. After 85 years of continuous use, it closed after being seriously damaged by a fire on May 8, 1974. Kathryn W. Burke notes that, had it not been for maintenance cutbacks that eliminated the job of the trackwalker, the fire might have been detected and extinguished before it caused significant damage. The Poughkeepsie Railway Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and reopened as the centerpiece of the Walkway over the Hudson State Historic Park on October 3, 2009.

Bear Mountain Bridge

Perhaps the most curious and unusual of all the Hudson River bridges, the quaint and comparatively remote Bear Mountain Bridge was opened to the public on November 27, 1924. It was built by the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company (under the leadership of E. Roland Harriman) with the express purpose of making the popular Bear Mountain State Park more accessible and convenient for the tourists who had become numerous enough to choke the nearby hotels and back up the ferries. The bridge was completed rapidly – in less than three years, as per the company’s agreement with the state – and, while the project’s opponents worried that the construction would efface the beauty of the spectacular Hudson Highlands, most people finally seemed to agree that the bridge was a visual stunner.

The bridge, however, was an economic disaster. Tolls were two-way and exorbitant, and the bridge operated at a loss year after year before being purchased by the New York State Bridge Authority in 1940, nearly 20 years before the state was scheduled to assume ownership.

Mid-Hudson Bridge

Considered by many to be the aesthetic peach of all the Hudson River bridges, the Mid-Hudson Bridge was created by the famous bridge designer Ralph Modjeski, who had had his hand in the rehabilitation design of the Poughkeepsie Railway Bridge years before. In fact, that railway bridge had been considered and discarded several times as a candidate for an additional automotive span. In his acclaimed 1974 book Bridges, photographer Daniel Plowden hails the Mid-Hudson as “one of the very finest American suspension bridges.”

Construction was begun in 1925 and halted briefly when a severe tilt developed on its east side. It took years to correct the issue with pulleys and dredging, at a rate of 18 inches per day. The bridge opened on August 25, 1930 in a ceremony attended by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Heavy use and congestion necessitated major traffic pattern changes in the east (Poughkeepsie) side in the early 1960s, and eventually on the Highland side as well, in 1967. Among the Mid-Hudson Bridge’s several unique claims to fame are its high-tech, multicolored LED “necklace” installed in 2001, and its use as a musical instrument by composer Joseph Bertolozzi, who released the resulting album, Bridge Music, in 2009.

Rip Van Winkle Bridge

A novel project in several respects, the Catskill-to-Hudson Rip Van Winkle Bridge is the only Hudson Valley bridge with a non-descriptive, non-honorific name drawn from the local cultural heritage: Washington Irving’s famous short story about a man who slept for 20 years in the Catskills, missing the American Revolution and awaking to a transformed world. Additionally, the financing of the bridge is considered by many to be an innovative precursor of FDR’s New Deal economic systems. Then-Governor Roosevelt vetoed the bridge’s proposed construction budget in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression; but, along with his naysaying, he also suggested the creation of a separate state agency to issue bonds to pay for the bridge – bonds that would be repaid by tolls. Thus did the New York State Bridge Authority come into existence.

The primary rationale for the bridge was the overcrowding of the other two Hudson crossings, as well as benefits to be realized by connecting two popular natural tourist areas: the Catskills and the Berkshires. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge opened on July 2, 1935.

Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge

The privately operated Kingston-Rhinecliff ferry used by commuting Bard professors and many others discontinued service in the height of World War II, in 1942, creating the need that would not be filled by the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge for another 15 years. Again and again, the project’s advocates were tasked with proving the need for the bridge, and apparently governor Thomas Dewey was a tough sell. While appeals and initiatives had begun in the early ’40s, all the necessary signoffs were not in place until 1949. It would be another seven years until the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge opened in the dead of winter on February 2, 1957.

The bridge was designed by David Steinman, whose credits include the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. Running well over-budget, delayed by a steel shortage and plagued by siting issues and sudden changes thereof, the Kingston-Rhinecliff may be the problem child of the Hudson spans, and, to this writer at least, remains the most frightening. It did, however, directly affect a boom in housing development on both sides of the river, in communities like Saugerties and Rhinebeck.

Newburgh-Beacon Bridge

Offering a wide and direct shot from New England to middle America and beyond, the two spans of the Hamilton Fish Newburgh-Beacon Bridge are, by a good margin, the NYSBA’s most-trafficked bridges, crossed by 25 million vehicles a year. The newest bridge of the NYSBA has the oldest origins. Its roots go back to Alexander Colden’s official ferry, established in 1743 and patronized by the likes of George Washington and John Adams in the Revolutionary War years. The Ramsdell family continued to run Colden’s Ferry until 1956, when its operation was taken over by the NYSBA.

The bridge was originally required to be four lanes because it was to carry an Interstate highway, but governor Nelson Rockefeller successfully argued that the 25,000-cars-per-day usage estimate was inflated and that a two-lane bridge would suffice. The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was 12 years in the making, from a bill introduced in 1951 to its official opening on November 2, 1963, with Governor Rockefeller officiating. By 1964, the bridge was in fact carrying 25,000 vehicles a day, and traffic jams were a considerable problem that only worsened when Interstate 84 was expanded in the 1970s.

It would take years for the second span to be proposed, approved and built and the original four-lane vision realized. The second span was opened on November 1, 1980: almost exactly 17 years after the first.