The Rip Van Winkle Bridge—Hudson’s Connection to the West

The Hudson Valley is oriented generally on a north-south axis. Besides the river itself (one of the very few rivers in the world that run north-south), all the major roads in the region reach north from New York City directly south. The New York State Thruway, Routes 9 and 9W, The Taconic Parkway and several smaller roads all follow the course of the river. Amtrak runs north and south through Hudson. From Poughkeepsie the Metro North trains run south to Grand Central Station.

But most of the continent lies to the west of the City of Hudson. And while ferry boats once crossed the river often, today they run no longer (an exception is the Hudson-Athens ferry that makes limited runs on weekends). Instead, our gateway to Catskill, Western New York State and even California, is a two-lane, automotive cantilever and steel truss bridge that runs from a point on the eastern bank of the Hudson beneath Olana, to a landing on the western bank just north of the town of Catskill.

The bridge is named after a character in one of Washington Irving’s story. Irving wrote from his home near Tarrytown, NY, in the early nineteenth century and in this tale, a certain old Dutch settler leaves a sleepy Hudson Valley town for a walk in the woods, becomes beguiled by an elven folk who put him to sleep for twenty years; then arrives back in his town to find it very much more agitated with talk of revolution. His name is Rip Van Winkle. Irving also wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, a timeless yarn about an old Hudson Valley schoolteacher bedeviled by a so-called “headless horseman”.

Old Rip and his kind may be long gone, but his name is perpetuated by association with a well-trafficked bridge that functions as a key transportation link for the Hudson and Columbia County region.

 

Vintage postcard of the Rip Van Winkle bridge.

The bridge is 5,040 feet long with a main cantilever span of 800 feet. It clears the waters of the Hudson by about 145 feet. Construction started in 1933 and the bridge opened to traffic only two years later in 1935 at a cost of about $2.5 million. Three men were killed in its construction. It crosses the river about a hundred miles or so north of the George Washington Bridge (busiest bridge in the nation) that carries traffic between Upper Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The original plan called for the bridge to anchor on the west at the site of the (Hudson River School artist) Thomas Cole house but, fortunately for art-lovers and historians today, a dispute led to its anchoring slightly to the north of the property. In order to build on the steep western landing, a narrow-gauge railroad was built, while on the eastern shore new roads were built to accommodate construction.

According to the New York State Department of Transportation, about 15,000 vehicles cross the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on a typical day. The bridge carries NY Route 23, and connects to the west with US 9W and the New York State Thruway; and to the east with NY 9G in Hudson. Bicyclists are permitted on the bridge, but only on the main roadway—the casual observer will hardly see a bicycler crossing this bridge on wheels, and it can only be suggested this may not be the safest way to cross. Instead, the bicycler may want to walk his or her bike along the narrow sidewalk on the outboard (south side) of the superstructure, which is reserved exclusively for pedestrian use.

The walkway is often used by joggers and sightseers. From the middle of the span, the views are certainly worth the trek! You can see miles up and down the river, and you are rewarded with a spectacular view of the river and its steep banks as well as the Catskills to the west.

The bridge has undergone resurfacing and repair in recent years and while traffic is steady, it is almost never crowded. A toll of $1.50 is collected going from west to east only and the gate accepts the popular EZ-Pass electronic payment system.

If you’re headed to (or from) the Catskill Mountains or the New York State Thruway via Hudson, you will certainly find yourself crossing this span, enjoying the view as you cross the Hudson River.

Racquel Roberts