The First Suspension Bridge to Cross the Hudson River – 1871
Eight or ten years ago, when some of the last of the Finch-Pruyn lands were transferred from the Nature Conservancy to the State of New York, my wife and I hiked into Palmer Pond and then bushwhacked down to the Hudson River on the last of their logging roads. Almost at the edge of the riverbank there was a log-header and just behind he the header was what appeared to be the remains of an old roadway. We followed the overgrown roadway for approximately a quarter of a mile. We then turned around, not knowing if we had inadvertently hiked on to private lands. However that memory of the roadway lingered in my mind. Where did it go ??
A few years later a friend and I were paddling the Hudson River from Riparius to the Glen and after paddling through “Z rapids” and “Horse Race Rapids” we stopped to rest at the Washburn’s Eddy. There, my friend pointed out (river left) two iron cables that reached down the rock face and entered the water. What was this ? My friend told me that it was the remains of a bridge that had one time crossed the Hudson River.
This past year I heard more about this mysterious bridge. After I spoke with a few of my ski buddies and the local DEC rangers, the story of the roadway and the bridge stated to emerge. A local historian recommended that I read Rosemary Pelkey’s book about Robert Codgell Gilchrist and that the mysteries might then be solved.
Robert Codgell Gilchrist was born into an extremely wealthy, well-connected Charleston family in 1829. The oligarchic families of South Carolina had made their wealth on tobacco, rice, indigo, and shipping and Charleston harbor was one of the centers of the southern slave trade. Robert Gilchist’s father had received a federal Judgeship form President Van Buren and he owned an opulent home. Each summer the wealthy Gilchrist family journeyed north to avoid the hot humid subtropical summers of Charleston. They stayed with maternal family members in the Great Northern Wilderness of New York. (The term Adirondacks was reportedly first used by geologist and surveyor Ebenezer Emmons in 1838 and took some time to become generally accepted).
Robert Gilchrest’s father (Robert Budd Gilchrist or Judge Gilchrist) had married his first cousin Mary Gilchrist in 1827. At the time it was not uncommon to consolidate family wealth and for first cousins to marry. She was also related to the Thurman family of the southern Adirondacks, and it is through this marriage and family connections that Gilchrest inherited thousands of acres in the Adirondacks upon his mother’s death in 1869.
Civil War years, and after the war
As a young man growing up in fashionable Charleston, the only son of a Federal Judge, the young Robert Gilchrist led an extremely privileged life. He graduated from the College of Charleston, studied law, and began a lucrative law practice. He joined the city’s National Guard, the Washington Light Infantry. During this time the Nation became more and more divided over slavery. The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published (1852), “bleeding Kansas” took place after the passage of the Kansas- Nebraska Act (1854). And the 1859 attack at Harpers Ferry lead by abolitionist John Brown was crushed and Brown was hanged.
When the Civil War finally broke out, while opposed to secession, Robert Gilchrist stayed in Charleston and sided with the Confederacy. He fought to defend Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor from capture by the Union Navy. He was commissioned and rose to the rank of Major under General Beauregard, commander in Charleston. It wasn’t until 1865 that the city finally surrendered as General Sherman marched through South Carolina on his way to Georgia.
When the war ended Major Gilchrist, his wife and young family traveled north to The Glen to inspect the property owned by his uncle (another Robert Gilchrist) and his mother, (Mary Gilchrist). Uncle Robert Gilchrist had remained in the Southern Adirondacks looking after the family property and investing in local industries during the 1830’s. One of which was the Warren County Railroad. He was also very interested in Dr. Thomas Durant’s Adirondack Railroad, whose development had been delayed due the recent Civil War. Now that the war was over and the Union Pacific Railroad had been completed, Dr. Thomas Durant could concentrate on building his Railroad from Saratoga to North Creek and on north to the iron mines at Tahawus. To that end Robert Gilchrist sold 1,542 acres to Durant with the understanding that a railroad depot would be built near Washburn’s Eddy, along the Hudson River
Robert Gilchrist, like many others, came to the Adirondacks with the idea of developing his lands. In 1866 he saw a land untouched by the war’s destruction and full of potential in his forestlands, the new Adirondack Railroad, and in waterpower by harnessing the many streams that fed into the Hudson River. He also saw the potential of tourism and the resort industry. He built his own grand home, Inglewood, along Harrington Road in the town of Weavertown, on a hillside that overlooked the Hudson River.
The first bridge
The tracks of Durant’s railroad were just down the hill and ran along the banks of the Hudson River. Robert Gilchrist had plans for a bridge to cross the Hudson at Washburn’s Eddy and a roadway to connect Chestertown, Pottersville, and Schroon Lake. He decided on a “Roebling style” suspension bridge, and enlisted the bridge engineer Charles McDonald to supervise the construction. Robert Gilchrist’s bridge, the first suspension bridge to cross the Hudson River, was dedicated on September 8, 1871 with a public celebration including a steam locomotive with boxcars, and a picnic planned. (It is unknown whether Thomas Durant was in attendance.) Tables had been constructed on the bridge, champagne was served, but the celebration was short lived due to the lack of food. Reportedly, however there were plenty of speeches.
The bridge was described as being approximately 25 feet above the normal water level, 15 wide, with a span of 230 feet. After the bridge was constructed, a railroad depot would be constructed and passenger service could detrain and catch a stagecoach to Chestertown, Schroon Lake or North Creek. The roadway on the east side of the river, the Chestertown side, was not yet completed, but a passable track had been established with a very difficult left turn just after crossing the bridge, and immediately climbing a steep hill. This rock outcropping, among many others, would have to be blasted away.
At the same time Gilchrist was constructing his bridge, a rival company, the Central Bridge Company was selling stock and planning to build a suspension bridge about three miles upriver formerly Adam’s Woods or as it was known then Folsom Landing. The primary stockholders were businessmen and hotel owners in Pottersville, Schroon Lake and Chestertown.
The Folsom’s Landing bridge was a much better geographic location. There was a ferry across the Hudson already established and there were already existing roadways (such as they were) going to Weavertown and Johnsburg to the west and Pottersville, Schroon Lake and Chestertown to the north and east. An editorial in a Glens Falls newspaper stated in part “. . . Mr. Gilchrist has got a bridge built, but he has got to dig through a mountain of granite before he can have a road to get to the bridge from the Chester side of the river.”
In 1871 the Central Bridge Company’s stock sold rapidly at twenty-five dollars a share. The fifteen thousand dollars was soon raised and the second suspension bridge to cross the Hudson River was constructed. Mr. Durant built a railroad depot called Riverside Station (eventually called Riparius). By 1873 the bridge was completed and there was stage service to the various surrounding towns and Schroon Lake. It was reported, “the arrivals and departures from this station average over fifty passengers daily. We have the best depot on the (Rail)road.”
A fateful end
So, what happened to Mr. Gilchrist’s Bridge ?? As fate may have it, on April 1st 1873, (April Fool’s Day), after a very heavy wet and almost four-foot deep snowstorm, the cables on one side of the bridge gave way. The Glens Falls Republican noted “On the 1st one of the anchorages of the suspension bridge at Washburn’s Eddy gave way, and the bridge now hangs on one cable bottom side up. The weight of the snow and the carless manner in which anchorages were built is the cause. The bridge was erected by Mr. R, C. Gilchrist some year and a half ago, and cost upwards of $8,000.” Later in the spring of 1873, the remains of Gilchrest’s suspension bridge were taken down as to not impede the spring logging (river drive).
Major Gilchrist and his family returned to Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 1873. He continued his law practice, and he became once again a pillar of Charleston reconstruction society. He, rather infrequently returned to the Adirondacks whenever he sold more of the Adirondack lands that he had inherited from his mother. However the last 1,704 acres were not sold until after his death in 1902 at the age of 73.
So, what is left of this once interesting bridge ? After reading Rosemary Peleky’s interesting book about Robert Gilchrist and his family. I decided to search out the location of the ill-fated bridge site. I recalled paddling down the Hudson River from Riparius to The Glen and having the cables pointed out to me at Washburn’s Eddy, river left, still evident.
I also wanted to know if there were any bridge abutments still visible. According to Rosemary Pelkey’s book there were, and she had accompanying photographs in her book. After checking with DEC rangers, I was informed that the Gilchrist Bridge site was not part of the Finch-Pruyn lands transferred to the State in 2013. With the assistance of tax maps and knowledgeable local residents, I was able to contact the private property owners and obtain permission to hike down the east side of the Hudson River (river left, Chestertown side). After various attempts, a friend of mine led me to the site.
I had also seen photographs of the bridge abutments on the west side of the Hudson River (river right or the Johnsburg side) and I wanted to find those remains. After hiking about 2.5 miles north from The Glen. Not far from the railroad bed were the two bridge abutments and the remains of the old roadway. In the future, if and when Warren County sees fit to make the Railroad bed a multi-purpose trial the Gilchrist Bridge site could be an interesting stop for those utilizing the 55-mile section from Saratoga to North Creek.
Photograph and map credits: – All photographs taken by Mike Prescott, map photos by Rick Rosen, with special effects by Rick Rosen.
– Photo # 1 – Photo of Robert Codgell Gilchrist from the cover of Rosemary Miner Pelkey’s book – Adirondack Bridgebuilder from Charleston: The Life and Times of Robert Codgell Gilchrist
Photo #2 – Drawing of the Gilchrist Bridge (Adirondack Bridgebuilder from Charleston: The life and Times of Robert Codgell Gilchrist, Rosemary Pelkey, pg. 86).
– Photo #3 – Topo Map with enlargement – Location of the Gilchrist Bridge / Hudson River / Riparius and surrounding area –
– Photo # 4 – Maps – Riverside Station to Weavertown and Riverside Station to Schroon lake, Pottersville, Chestertown showing bridge and connecting roadways — Atlas of Warren County, N. Y., F. W. Beers, 1876.
Photo # 5 – Postcard of the Folsom’s Landing Bridge
-Photos # 6, 7, 8 – Contemporary Photos of Bridge Abutments, Cables (permission from private land owners)
Photograph #6 – Cables down to Washburn Eddy – east side /river left)
Photograph #7 – Cables in the woods – (east side / river left /Chestertown side)
Photograph #8 – Bridge abutments – (west side / river right /Johnsburg side)