Strolling across the mile-and-a-quarter expanse of Walkway Over the Hudson, it’s hard to believe that the elevated pedestrian bridge with its scenic views — such a calm and relaxing place — only came into being because of a horrific fire that occurred there 45 years ago. Opened in 1889 as the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, the last train across its expanse on May 8, 1974 caused a fire that resulted in damage to the bridge too severe to overcome. In the years that followed, the burned-out structural remains lay dormant and abandoned until their conversion into the Walkway in 2009.
The Highland Fire Department’s Chief Peter Miller was a relative rookie with the fire service back in ‘74, a member of the all-volunteer crew for just two years at that point. When the call came that May morning around 10:30 a.m. to go put out the fire, he was at his day job. He told his boss he’d be “right back,” never imagining that he’d end up being out on the railroad bridge fighting the fire well into the evening.
The fire was started by something rather routine. “Back in the day, railroad cars had what were called ‘journal boxes,’” Miller explains. Axles were housed in the boxes, which were filled with a hemp-like material, heavily oiled or greased to lubricate the bearing. “What would happen, is, if the railroad car was not properly maintained, and the oil dried out, the friction from the steel would cause the hemp to catch fire.”
The journal boxes were not tightly sealed, so when that happened, bits of burning hemp would fall out as the railroad car traveled along, starting brush fires. “We had that all the time,” Miller notes; “brush fires started by overheated journal boxes. And the last train that went across the railroad bridge dropped pieces of burning hemp onto the creosote-coated railroad ties and set the bridge on fire.”
When Highland firefighters got to the bridge, Poughkeepsie firemen were already at work on the other side. “We were called under mutual aid by Poughkeepsie,” Miller says. “We walked out onto the bridge and went over toward the fire, where there were standpipe boxes [where a hose can be connected]. It was set up so that Poughkeepsie could pump into it from their side, but the pipe had frozen and broken at some point in time. We were trying to plug the pipe up to give Poughkeepsie some pressure, but it didn’t work. We couldn’t get any pressure, and the fire was gaining on us; there were times we thought we weren’t going to be able to outrun it, because it was burning westerly.”
The Highland crew ended up closing the valve in the middle of the bridge and pumping from the Highland side using tankers of water. “We laid 2,600 feet of hose on the bridge to be able to fight the fire,” Miller adds. “We were out there about ten and a half hours.”
The now-fire chief has a photo taken that day, of himself and two other men trying to get enough pressure to make the water flow. What looks like grey smoke behind them in the black-and-white reproduction was actually red and orange flames, he says. “We advanced on the fire to a point where we were kicking the fifth plates off [square plates underneath the rails that weigh about 12 pounds each]. Miller says he remembers the sound of those plates bouncing off of Route 9 more than 200 feet below: boing!
Fighting that fire was “an interesting experience,” Miller says with some understatement, not the least because he happened to be a railroad buff.
The bridge, owned by Penn Central then, was too badly damaged to make it worth saving. “It would not have been an easy repair,” says Miller, noting how severely the heat had warped the rails and the huge box beams that ran from pier to pier. Penn Central was in bankruptcy at the time, too, so they basically abandoned the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge and rerouted their trains upstate.
All these years later, Miller began his 47th year of service with the Highland Fire Department in May. Joining was less complicated back in the ‘70s, he says, when the required Essentials of Firemanship class was only 39 hours long, not the 127-147 hours it is now, with classes for first aid, CPR, haz-mat and other skills included. He was inspired to volunteer while working on “muscle cars” with a group of friends a bit older than he was. “I learned mechanical aptitude from them, and one of the guys was in the fire department, and that led me to end up joining.”
Candidates for the job are always asked why they want to join the fire department, with the standard answer being “to serve my community,” Miller says. “And to some degree that’s true. But the kind of thing that drives many people to do this is wanting to take on a real challenge, like running into a burning building that other people are running out of. And in the right organization – and we strive for this – there’s camaraderie, there’s no cliques, and there’s uniform management of the way people are handled. It gets down to the challenge of doing whatever the task is at hand.”
Two years into the work, Miller became a driver and operator, and then an officer for the first time in 1978. He served as first lieutenant for several years before becoming captain, then eight years later became assistant chief.
Miller was elected chief for the first time in 1991, elected a second time in ’93. He remained as chief “until about 2005, I think,” he says. “Then I got out; that’s what you want to do. It’s a tough job: you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with issues, and all the while you’re the point contact.” Managing the scene at a fire is actually the least of it, he says.
In his first year as chief, Miller kept track of how many hours he spent doing the fire chief-specific part of the work – not counting going on calls – and it came to 32 hours a week; a rather hefty commitment for volunteer work done while holding down a fulltime day job. But even after 2005, he still served as assistant chief for a few years and then went back to being chief again four or five years ago. “I think I have a total of 20 years as chief, overall.”
Miller was born locally, in Vassar Hospital, but grew up on a farm in New Kingston, New York, up in Delaware County. His father’s roots in that area go back for generations, but better job opportunities for his dad as a teacher brought the family to Highland, where Miller enrolled in eighth grade, which was high school then. His father became principal of the school and Pete was president of the student government.
He drove a tractor trailer in high school and college, working for a few different farm and fruit stand operations, later going into the food industry as a plant manager for several different enterprises. He worked for Hudson Valley Apple Products in Milton for a number of years – sold while he worked there to a company he describes as “the Kraft Foods of England” – working with them throughout the big cyanide scare with apples in the ‘80s, the company even chartering a Concorde to fly cyanide test strips from England to New York at one point. Miller also worked with the founders of Snapple, and met his wife, Veronica, while working at EFCO Products in Poughkeepsie, which manufactures all of the Dunkin’ Donuts fillings in the world. (His wife currently runs the plant.) After a stint as executive director of Alamo Ambulance, Miller went to the Highland Central School District, where he has been facilities manager for the past 12-plus years.
And all the while, there’s been Highland Hose Company #1.
In addition to responding to calls and managing fire scenes, a chief’s mindset, says Miller, needs to be, “What do we do as an organization to be the best?” One of the things the Highland Fire Department has accomplished in recent years is lowering the cost of homeowner’s insurance for people in the Highland fire district, by improving their insurance services organization (ISO) rating from a class 8 to a class 3. “People don’t always make the connection, but that change has saved them many hundreds of thousands of dollars on homeowner’s insurance,” Miller explains.
Improving that rating is done by “acquiring the right equipment, the right training and documentation of the training. Everything we do, is all part of it. Our water department is very good; the water system is well-maintained, has good flows, good hydrants, and that affects the rating.”
There’s a cost to the fire service, Miller notes, “just like there’s a cost to an insurance policy. And you hope you never need either one, but the two are somewhat tied together. If the fire department is good enough, it lowers the cost of your insurance without being very expensive. There are fire departments that are very good, but they’re very expensive in their tax rates.”
Highland Hose Company #1 celebrates their 125th anniversary this year. A parade is planned in the hamlet for next month.