"It's like a dream come true. We could see it; we could envision it. The reality is fantastic. I was up on the Bridge Wednesday night, and it's just magical to be up there," said Claire Costantino, vice chairperson of Walkway over the Hudson.
The $38 million park is the mid-Hudson Valley's legacy project for the Henry Hudson Quadricentennial Celebration, the 400th anniversary of the eponymous explorer's voyage up the river. Walkway received a National Recreation Trail designation from the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on September 16. Eventually the bridge will connect a 25-mile rail trail network from Hopewell Junction to New Paltz and beyond.
At the Grand Opening Celebration on October 2 through 4, volunteers, dignitaries, performers, artists and special guests will christen the Bridge - 212 feet above the Hudson River - as part of an extravaganza conceived by Jeanne Fleming. Fleming, of Red Hook, is an American Celebration artist who directs New York City's annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. The Walkway celebration is her largest effort to date, with more than 6,000 volunteers. "There are so many people involved, it's really astonishing. The amount of public support that exists for this is tremendous. I've never in my life sent out a request for volunteers and had something like this happen," said Fleming.
Walkway chairman Fred Schaeffer calls the new park "the people's project," made possible only through the commitment of local communities. He anticipates 10,000 to 20,000 participants during the opening celebration. The weekend's theme is, simply, "Walking on Air."
The festivities begin on Friday, October 2. At approximately 7 p.m., invited guests will line the 6,767-foot Bridge to take part in the Grand Illumination. Volunteers, the "Lantern Masters of the Illuminati," will release more than 1,000 hot-air lanterns, illuminating the nighttime sky. They will be the first to walk the Bridge at night. Later, they will experience a bird's-eye view of the Grand Fireworks Display, shot from a barge beneath the Bridge after the lantern launch.
On Saturday, October 3 at 10 a.m., thousands are expected to attend the official opening ceremony. Event emcees governor David A. Paterson and his wife Michelle, the honorary chair of the Hudson/Fulton/Champlain Quadricentennial Celebration, will be joined by other local, state and national dignitaries for a slew of symbolic events to reunite both sides of the Hudson via Walkway.
Highland and Poughkeepsie residents will hold and extend two half-mile nautical ropes coming from each side of the Bridge. They will be joined at Walkway's midpoint in a knot symbolizing the uniting of Ulster and Dutchess Counties and the north and south ends of the Hudson. The knot will be tied by Lloyd town supervisor Raymond Costantino and Poughkeepsie mayor John Tkazyik, symbolizing the union. Local luminary Pete Seeger will perform a solo rendition of "Golden River," with lyrics modified to befit the occasion:
High above my golden river
Sun and river all my own
Yet I was never alone
He will then be joined by a chorus of local students for a musical encore. Governor and Mrs. Paterson will then proceed to opposite sides of the Bridge, where they will perform simultaneous ribbon-cutting ceremonies to open each entrance to the Walkway. The Grand Parade will then flow across the Bridge in both directions, featuring flagbearers from more than 50 towns, villages and cities in Ulster and Dutchess Counties. Each municipality will be led by its respective event artist, bearing the seal of each town.
The Bridge will open to the public for the first time at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m. there will be a circus parade across the Bridge. As it gets dark, the circus performances will switch to all-illuminated versions, said Fleming. Those who come to see the show are asked to participate by bearing flashlights or glo-sticks.
On Sunday, Oct. 4, the Treetops to Rooftops 5K Run, hosted by the Mid-Hudson Road Runners Club, will step off from the Highland Bridge entrance at 8 a.m. The Bridge reopens for the public that afternoon.
Participants in the weekend's official events are encouraged to prepare accordingly, said Fleming. "Be prepared for a long walk; wear comfortable shoes. The bridge can be chilly. Wear something that lights up for Saturday night; on Friday, everybody on land should bring their cellphones so they can shine them up to the lanterns on the Bridge," she said.
Although there will be water stations, there will be none for purchase and volunteers are encouraged to bring their own. And Fleming strongly recommends that participants use the bathroom before entering the Bridge. "They'll be happy if they do!" she said.
Those who don't have a ticket to walk the Bridge during the opening ceremonies have one last chance to make it up for opening day: participating in the puppetmaking workshops currently being held in Poughkeepsie.
Some of the activities, like the Grand Illumination, can be viewed from shore. Those who have access to a boat will still be allowed in the Hudson, which will be overseen by Coast Guard boats.
Beyond the Bridge, the weekend promises much more fanfare, including band performances, rowing races, a Jet-Ski ballet and a flyover by the Olde Rhinebeck Aerodrome. The Town of Lloyd will host the Highland HudsonFest in its downtown hamlet on October 3 from noon to 10 p.m., with food, entertainment, vendors, artists and an old-fashioned evening block party from 6 p.m. on. On October 4, there will be a festival at Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park, located on the Hudson River just north of the Walkway Bridge.
Nicknamed "The Great Connector," the Poughkeepsie/Highland Railroad Bridge first opened for commercial train traffic in 1888. At 6,767 feet, it was the longest bridge in the world. At 212 feet tall, Walkway over the Hudson remains the highest bridge over the Hudson River.
For more information about the Walkway over the Hudson project, please visit www.walkway.org or call (845) 454-9649. For information about the puppetmaking workshops, call or e-mail Jeanne Fleming at (845) 758-5519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.