The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge - Purple Mountain Press

The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge
and Its Connecting Rail Lines

A Many-Faceted History

by Carleton Mabee

From Chapter 44:

"Shortly before 1:00 PM on May 8 1974, a soft spring day, a train crept from the Highland shore, out over the Poughkeepsie Bridge. The train, the only regular eastbound train of the day, was as usual a long one, with over 100 cars. It was a train operated by Penn Central in agreement with Erie Lackwanna. Originally made up in the Erie Lackwanna yard at Port Jervis, including cars which had arrived from Chicago, it picked up more cars in Maybrook. Its diesel units were Erie Lackwanna's, and it was heading for New Haven, Providence, and Boston.

About an hour later, a cloud of black smoke hung over the Poughkeepsie end of the bridge. On the bridge deck, wooden railroad ties were smoldering, and next to them, wooden walkways were burning, fanned by a moderate breeze.

Because Penn Central had no guards or maintenance men on guard at the time, the fire was not quickly reported. When the firemen arrived at the site, first firmen from Poughkeepsie and later from surrounding towns, they found that their equipment could not easily pump water up to the top of such a high bridge. When they tried turning on the water to flow in to the steel pipe line which ran the length of the bridge, a line meant to help fight fires, they found that because it had not been drained the previous winter, it had burst at several points--Penn Central had known it but not repaired it.

On top of the bridge, firemen found that the walkways had already burned enough to make it difficult for them to know where they could safely walk on them, which was disconcerting on such a high bridge. When they found it necessary to pull up portions of the walkway to block the spread of the fire, they found it still more difficult to know where to walk.

On the bridge deck, the fire's heat became so intense that it expanded steel railroad tracks, twisting them. It also warped steel girders. Firemen felt the bridge move under them, making them wonder if the bridge would collapse....As the walkways and railroad ties burned, pieces of them dropped down through the bridge. They set grass on fire. They set buildings on fire. They threatened huge gas tanks. As the tracks buckled and the girders warped, they pooped loose spikes, plates, and rivets, sometimes sending them clanging down through the bridge girders. By 3:20 PM , enough hot, burning debris had fallen down onto the Hudson Line's railroad tracks, where they passed under the bridge, to force Penn Central to close the tracks."

The Bridge: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was the first bridge of any kind to be built over the Hudson River from New York to Albany.

The Book: This book is a comprehensive history of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and its connecting lines, the first ever published. More oriented to people than technology, the book tells the story of the men who built the bridge and its related lines, and ran trains over them. It tells how maintenance men cared for the bridge, rowers raced under it, hoboes camped under its approaches. It explains why the number of trains crossing the bridge gradually declined, and how after a fire, the bridge was abandoned. It recounts how since then, friends of the bridge have developed imaginative proposals for rehabilitating the bridge for new pruposes, proposals which may yet be carried out.

The Author: This is Carleton Mabee's first book about a bridge, his second about railroads. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Mabee is retired from teaching at SUNY New Paltz. He lives in nearby Gardiner where he used to hear the whistles of trains heading for the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge. Purple Mountain Press has published his Listen to the Whistle about the Wallkill Valley Railroad (that title is now out of print in hardcover, however, a paperback edition was published in 2009 and is available for $22.50) and The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (the first paperback edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography).

296 pages, illustrated, 8.5 x 11, index, 2001, second printing 2006
$24.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

Copyright © 2002 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.