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Happy 55th, Tappan Zee Bridge

by John Patrick Schutz

There are watershed moments in every person’s life and in any municipality’s history; one of those occurred 55 years ago this week for the Nyacks and all of Rockland County. Arguably no other historical event since the arrival of Henry Hudson’s ship in 1609 has so affected and changed the lives of the native residents of Nyack than the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge on December 15, 1955. As it did for the Tappan and Nayak sub-tribes of the Lenni Lenapes back in 1609, life for residents in the Nyacks (and the rest of Rockland County) would never be the same.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR? You’ve got to admit it, you’ve asked the question yourself’€¦ WHY of all places did the government and the engineers choose the ‘€œTappan Sea’€ ‘€“ a three-mile wide section of the ‘€North River’€ that led Henry Hudson to believe he found the ‘€œNorthwest Passage’€ ‘€“ rather than one of the narrower sections of the Hudson just north or just south of here? Why not Piermont-Irvington or Snedens Landing-Dobbs Ferry? Wouldn’t that have been easier, and closer to the City? As it turns out, there are MANY reasons why ‘€œThe Bridge’€ showed up where it did ‘€“ some political, some jurisdictional (Port Authority of NY/NJ vs. NYS Thruway Authority, etc’€¦) and some simply, well, logical. You see, there are very few places along the Palisades and the Hudson Highlands where the shore of the Hudson is easily reachable from the interiors of Bergen County, Rockland County or Orange County (similar conditions also exist on the Bronx, Westchester and Putnam side, but are not quite as extreme). If you disbelieve me, stop at the State Line Lookout on the Palisades Parkway, go to the edge of the viewing area, and look down. Both Piermont and Snedens Landing had been operating Ferries since pre-Revolutionary times, but neither are particularly accessible from the interior. The Piermont Creek does cut through, but in a very narrow cutting not quite suitable for a major interstate, and that location would cause a much more difficult jurisdictional problem. Additionally, it appears many engineers felt the long, low flat area off Nyack in the Tappan Zee would be easier to deal with than the marsh/wetland area that abuts both Piermont and Sneden’s Landing. In the long run, I think the ecosystem of the wetlands is probably far better served with the bridge being located where it is, though I’m sure no one in the 1950s really cared too much about that!

BLESSING OR CURSE? The Bridge would have dramatic and relatively immediate impact on the Nyacks and all of Rockland. To be fair, it had done so before it ever opened, obliterating most of the Village of South Nyack and the Hamlet of Central Nyack (did you know South Nyack had a business district with stores, churches, a train station, cemeteries? Did you know one of those cemeteries was NOT relocated, just paved over? Remember that the next time you drive off the Nyack end of the Bridge’€¦). The population of all of Rockland County in 1950 was 89,276 – by 1960, that figure had risen to 136,803 an increase of 53%! The main reason for this influx was the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the New York State Thruway corridor. You cannot tell me that ANY municipality could possibly have prepared its’ resources and infrastructure to cope properly with that type of population growth. I started Elementary School in 1968, my brothers in 1966 and 1962 ‘€“ in my classroom in First Grade were 53 students, 61 and 60 in my brother’s classrooms. Parents today would be horrified at those numbers. A County-wide Sewer construction bond had been voted down during this time period (though parts of Orangetown and Stony Point did have them) a penny-wise/pound-foolish decision those same tight-fisted voters would later rue.

The influx of new residents would cause issues in School Districts and Utilities, but would also spell ultimate doom for the Downtown of Nyack (along with Pearl River, Haverstraw, Spring Valley and Suffern) ‘€œMom and Pop’€ stores could not compete with the large ‘€œBox Stores’€ (as we now refer to them) like E.J. Korvettes along the Route 59 Corridor, nor could local grocers compete with new ‘€œSuper Markets’€ springing up on 59, 303 and 9W. The final nail in the coffin of ‘€œOld Rockland Downtowns’€ was the Nanuet Mall. The new residents, who only thought in terms of where they could drive their cars had no problem driving to these ‘€œShopping Centers’€ and leaving the smaller stores in the dust. And of course, since we now could access Westchester and the City either via the NYS Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge, or the improved Palisades Interstate Parkway which linked to the George Washington Bridge, we certainly didn’t need that silly old-fashioned train anymore, right? After over 100 years of getting by train from Nyack to NYC in 50 minutes (via the Jersey Tubes), it was more convenient and individualistic to get in our cars and drive’€¦ (ah, how true that we reap what we sow’€¦) The Bridge would also signal the end of the Ferry System. Several had been operating in the same location since colonial times ‘€“ no longer necessary with the car to let you go on your own time (and consider how cheap gas was then!).

No, life would never be the same for Nyack and Rockland. But not all the changes would be negative. Though my family would be here (just under the wire) due to my Mom growing up with a Summer House her family had for years in Rockland Lake Village, many of my dearest friends would not be here without The Bridge. The diverse and dynamic array of cultures found in few other suburban areas anywhere would likely not have occurred, and that would have been a great loss. And I have to admit something. Despite the traffic tie-ups, despite the endless repairs, despite noise, soot and inconvenience ‘€“ I actually LOVE that Bridge. Some find it ugly, but much of the time I find it to be quite beautiful, especially at night. The view from my terrace allows me to see ‘€œmy’€ bridge lit up like a Christmas Ornament every night of the year (makes it easy to see the traffic conditions, too) and merely the sight of it warms my heart. At a dark time of my life, when I feared I would not ever be able to return home to the East Coast and Nyack again, the sight of that Bridge when I finally did return, and came around the bend of the Thruway in Westchester caused me to burst into to tears (it was a good thing my Dad was driving). Frankly, nothing says ‘€œHome’€ to me more than that massive, rusting, bumpy, whoever-said-it-was-a-fifty-year-bridge hunk of steel known as the ‘€œGovernor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge.’€

John Patrick Schutz is a realtor for Rand Realty in Nyack, NY. You can read his blog posts at AtHomeInNyack.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.


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