A decade ago, the fate of the Wurts Street Bridge, whose graceful span over the Rondout Creek is one of the attractions of Kingston’s downtown district, was uncertain.
Inaugurated in the governorship Nathan Lewis Miller in November 1921, the bridge had undergone an overhaul in the 1970s. When a new sidewalk-less highway bridge, the Judge John T. Loughran Bridge, was built over the creek to serve Route 9W just to the east of it in 1979, the obsolescence of the Wurts Street structure was official, though its walkways continued to serve pedestrians and cyclists. Its historic and aesthetic qualities, enhanced by the framing of the creek’s wooded bluffs, made it a candidate for preservation.
In 2014, a portion of it was repainted and some cable repairs were made, but the rust-covered girders were evidence of its advanced state of deterioration. In September 2020, the bridge was found unsafe and closed to traffic. The decision to restore it or to tear it down was up to its owner, the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT).
The Wurts Street Bridge is the only suspension bridge in the provenance of DOT. It was built as a link between Kingston and Port Ewen on what was then Route 9W, a state highway. When completed in 1921, it was the final part of New York’s north-south highway on the west shore of the Hudson River.
Then-assemblymember Kevin Cahill was instrumental in drumming up $37 million in state Assembly money, and the DOT provided the difference for the $44.6-million restoration project. In September 2021, work by four contractors commenced. It is scheduled for “substantial completion” by August 30 of this year.
This span has a story
Restoring the bridge has been a feat of engineering that’s inspired the making of a documentary film which will describe the many engineering challenges through dramatic footage. The film will also cover the history of the bridge and its impact on local industries. It will tell the stories of the workers and surrounding community now and then, spanning a century. A video previewing the film along with information on the project can be viewed at wurtsstreetbridgefilm.com.
Unlike the renowned The Bridge On the River Kwai, in which World War 2 prisoners of war of the Japanese destroy the structure they had painstakingly built over a Burmese river, this film will document a construction project to rebuild a century-old historic bridge in Kingston, New York.
Robert Vandeweghe, a filmmaker, community TV producer and licensed drone pilot based in New Jersey, had recently purchased a drone with a broadcast-quality video camera when he visited his friends Neville Bean and Harris Diamant at their loft in downtown Kingston.
Fascinated by the bridge renovation, Vandeweghe introduced himself to the foreman just as construction was beginning and began filming, positioning himself 2021as he piloted his drone in the parking lot below the bridge day after day in the fall of 2021
In 1999, he’d made a documentary film of the renovation of a highway interchange in northern New Jersey and gained some experience with the rebuilding of roadway infrastructure.
Neville Bean has been a fan of the bridge ever since she and Diamant, an antiques dealer and artist, left New York City and moved into a local loft in 2016. The couple frequently photographed the structure, which was visible from their patio overlooking the Rondout Creek (they have since left Rondout and now reside in Connelly). An art director, designer, and ceramist who has volunteered with Kingston’s Midtown Arts District on many community art-related projects, Bean had previously worked with Vandeweghe on a series of promotional videos for two of his clients, the Boy Scouts and Ronald McDonald House. It was natural to partner with him on this project, too.
Upon viewing his footage, she felt there was a bigger story, “touching on the metaphors of bridging the community through time and capturing the breathtaking beauty of the bridge.”
Out with the old
The film will include interviews with the engineers illustrating the stress dynamics and a CGI 3-D rendering of the bridge based on the schematics, Vandeweghe said.
Context will be provided about other significant historic preservation projects in Kingston. There’ll also be a description of community arts projects happening in conjunction with the renovation.
“We see the documentary as an opportunity to shine a light on the community, along with the science and engineering techniques involved in the restoration,” Vandeweghe explained.
The bridge renovation entails the installation of a new roadway deck, guide rails, sidewalks, railings, and suspension cables, of which there are 157, according to Vandeweghe. Some deteriorated steel components are being replaced. The pedestrian walkway, which will extend off the deck, is being widened to comply with ADA requirements. Climate-control systems will be installed in portions of the bridge to discourage moisture.
“The bridge was built with twentieth-century technology, and the materials have changed since then,” said Bean. “Even the formulation of the steel was less precise than it is now.”
Because the tens of thousands of rivets that hold the bridge together are no longer manufactured, they are being replaced with high-tech bolts. This is the most costly aspect of the project, according to Vandeweghe.
The Wurts Street structure was the first suspension bridge built in the Hudson Valley. Part of its magic derives from its relatively small proportion for a type of structure normally associated with sublime heights and great distances. Its 1145-foot span is slightly over a third of the length of the Mid-Hudson Bridge crossing the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, and much shorter than the span of the mighty multi-level George Washington Bridge between New York City and New Jersey.
Positioned 85 feet above the creek, the span is supported by two main cables suspended from the two towers, whose tops measure 190 feet from the creek, according to Vandeweghe. Each of the main cables consists of twelve smaller cables comprised of thousands of wires bundled into a steel tube. They were manufactured by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the firm founded by the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge and for over a century was a world-renowned supplier of cable wire. These horizontal cables have retained their strength and more than a century later need no repairs, Vandeweghe said.
Called the Rondout Creek Bridge when opened in 1921, the span is described by William B. Rhoads in his 2003 book Kingston, New York: The Architectural Guide as “a modest triumph of early-twentieth-century engineering and a clear sign of the coming of the automobile age to Kingston.” It replaced a primitive chain ferry that for two centuries had connected Kingston’s Rondout with Sleightsburgh and Port Ewen across the creek.
A hundred hours of footage
According to Rhoads’ Architectural Guide, a massive concrete-and-steel bridge supported on piers embedded in the creek bed was proposed in 1914. That design was discarded when it was discovered piers located midstream in the creek weren’t permitted. The project was further delayed by World War 1.
A steel suspension bridge designed by Daniel Moran was selected by the state’s highways commissioner in September 1919, and construction started soon after. Moran later was a consulting engineer on the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges, among others. His design partner on the Rondout Creek Bridge was marine engineer William Yates, also based in New York City.
Contractor Terry and Tench Construction Company retained Holton D. Robinson as a consulting engineer. Robinson, a long-span suspension bridge pioneer, had been head engineer of the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges in New York City. After forming a partnership with Daniel Steinman in 1922, Robinson designed the Henry Hudson Bridge and many other noteworthy bridges in the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.
The original construction of the bridge attracted unusual attention due to the presence of a female welder, Catherine Nelson, a 33-year-old Danish widow with two children who had emigrated to America following her husband’s death and had learned to weld in a machine shop as a way of supporting her family. According to Bean, Terry and Tench hired Nelson away from the Weehawken Cable Company to weld cables. Rhoads noted in The Architectural Guide that according to a 1921 article in The Daily Freeman she was “the only woman welder in the world” and was slated to be featured in a Pathe newsreel.
So far, Vandeweghe has at least 100 hours of footage, which depicts dozens of yellow-vested, orange-helmeted workers poised on the cables, deck, and struts midair as they weld, drill, bolt, scrape, saw, and paint. Viewed from above, alongside, or below, we see them prying up old pieces of concrete roadway; attaching giant water-filled plastic cubes lowered from a crane onto the steel girders beneath the exposed deck (the cubes are critical to stabilizing the weight on the bridge as pieces of the concrete roadway are removed, according to Vandeweghe), and examining a mammoth cluster of exposed horizontal cables at the bridge’s base. He captures the bridge in various weathers and times of day, creating a portrait of a steel structure whose gray curves and gridded geometry transcend the material, taking on a poetic power.
In the course of the renovation, workers discovered a copper time capsule behind the bluestone cornerstone. Unfortunately, the paper material within the box that contained it had rotted. But Vandeweghe and Bean had an idea. Why not replace it with a time capsule that would create a snapshot of Kingston in the early 2020s?
The capsule is currently being conceived of as both a physical object and a community project. As stated in the pair’s press materials, it would provide a representative sampling of current and upcoming projects of the city’s various cultural organizations — a kind of “message from today to the future.” On Father’s Day weekend, June 17 and 18, an event is being organized at the Hudson River Maritime Museum which will feature displays by the museum, the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, Rupco, My Kingston Kids, and possibly other groups, along with videos, photos and information about the bridge project.
Vandeweghe and Bean are applying for grants and planning to raise money in ither ways for their full-length documentary film, which they hope to broadcast on regional and national PBS stations. They estimate the post-production process will take eight months to a year. They hope to have the film done late next year or soon after.