Rensselaer County Bridges

By Don Rittner

The following article by Don Rittner appeared in the December 12, 2000 edition of the Troy Record.
The author has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. It was submitted by Pam Trudeau.

Part of being human is dealing with challenges. One interesting challenge in our history has been crossing large bodies of water.

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the first people to populate America may have traveled from Polynesia by boat.

Once people arrived, though, the next challenge was crossing mighty rivers like the Hudson. Today, we laugh at the idea that crossing a river was much of a problem. Modern technology takes us over bridges in seconds.

However, it wasn't so long ago that crossing the Hudson by bridge at Troy or Albany was a major political battle that took years to accomplish. Troy won.

Well, actually, Lansingburgh was first. The Union Bridge, built in 1804, was the first bridge to span the Hudson, connecting Waterford to Lansingburgh. At a cost of $20,000, it was declared an engineering feat. Large hewn timbers squared by hand axes were pinioned together with large wooden pegs and iron strips welded together. When it burned in 1909, it was the oldest covered bridge in America.

In 1834, the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad spanned Troy to Green Island with a covered wooden bridge. It was the first bridge in Troy and the only bridge between New York City and Waterford. It was the fuel for Troy's largest fire when a spark from an idling train engine ignited the timbers of the bridge in 1862. More than 507 buildings burned to the ground.

A second railroad bridge was built to take its place between 1876 and 1884.

In 1977, I drove over the bridge an hour before it went crashing into the river after a pier from the original bridge gave way.

In 1872, the second Troy bridge was built at the foot of Congress Street at a cost of $350,000. It was the second largest highway bridge in America. In 1880, Cohoes was connected by bridge to Lansingburgh, and that bridge burned as well. Next, an iron bridge with wooden floors was built. It burned on March 4, 1920.

The last historic bridge was the Menands Bridge, built in 1933, connecting South Troy to Menands. Troy and Albany fought for first bridge rights. Albany actually proposed building a bridge in January, 1814, but was opposed by Troy, Lansingburgh, and Waterford.

On Feb. 22, 1866, Albany's first bridge opened. It was built on 21 stone piers and cost $750,000. Rebuilt over the years, it went from serving freight trains to both freight and passenger use today. This may be the oldest 19th century bridge of its kind still spanning the Hudson.

So, Albany wins the battle in the long run. None of Troy's earliest bridges remain standing.

Today, a little cabin, no larger than a bedroom, sits on top of the Albany bridge. George Ford, a 35-year railroad man, swings open the bridge several times a day to let boats through. Manning one of three shifts, George peers at a large wooden board that takes up the northern length of the cabin - above it a beautiful bird's eye view of the Hudson. The board is filled with red and yellow monitor lights along an imaginary set of lines representing tracks. Using his 35 years of experience, George throws any series of switches that control the direction of the tracks to make sure all trains crossing through the Rensselaer Station area stay on course.

George takes his job in stride, as most professionals do. However, it represents one of the last unique (probably disappearing) jobs in America, and one which has been going on at this site for 134 years.

Send comments or suggestions to:
Debby Masterson
Go Back to Rensselaer Co. Potpourri
Go Back to Home Page