An 1866 article in the Rockland Country Journal playfully mentioned the approval of a bridge across the Tappan Zee by Tarrytown and Nyack Villagers on January 7, purportedly constructed within 48 hours. It humorously detailed its safety for pedestrians, sleighs, and even cattle, with Thomas Magee’s machine shop showcasing its strength by moving a several-ton steam boiler across the river.
However, this “bridge” wasn’t a conventional structure across the 3-mile-wide Tappan Zee but rather Nyack’s famed ice bridge, formed during the coldest winters. Local newspapers speculated annually about its appearance, sometimes occurring every year and at times with gaps of ten years or more between formations.
A Frozen Playground & Multi-Lane Expressway
When the ice bridge emerged, it became not just a means of transportation but a playground for people of all ages. It hosted walkers, skaters, cyclists, cars, horses, and even motorcycles on its meticulously marked route across the nearly three-mile-wide Tappan Zee. There were even instances of two black bears making the journey.
Weekends saw the ice bridge bustling with activity. Walkers took about an hour to cross, skilled skaters did it in 13 minutes, and cars breezed across. Trucks and cross-country traffic also utilized the ice bridge, becoming the sole route across the river north of Manhattan ferries during frozen years. However, being stranded on the wrong side when the ice broke meant a daunting 65-mile round trip to cross back.
“Streets and roads! Who cares for either, while we have the river? The ice has been remarkably even the whole of this winter.” James Fenimore Cooper, Satanstoe
Formation of the Ice Bridge
The ice formed near the river’s edge or extended to the bottom in certain areas. Daily tides moved the ice, occasionally forming a seam between the river ice and shore ice. Volunteers strategically placed wooden planks during low tides, allowing cars to bridge the gap from shore ice down to the river ice. The ice bridge’s route began at a beach north of Main Street and featured distinct paths for walkers, horses, and cars.
- Instances of ice bridges were documented in the years 1873, 1893, 1907, 1912, 1917, and 1920, each providing a mix of tragic and enjoyable tales.
- Frank Bartow, a Nyack taxi driver, offered rides to Tarrytown and Westchester County for $1, while adept skaters crossed in 13 minutes.
- In 1912, Norman Burke, owner of a photography studio at 34 South Broadway, took photos from the ice including of a plane flying over. On a Monday in January, thousands of people enjoyed the ice as far as the eye could see.
- A father-son duo skated from Nyack Beach to Croton Point, to Tarrytown light, and back.
- A Nyack High School student engineered an “ice boat” using a Flexible Flyer sled with a sail, reaching exhilarating speeds but facing challenges on the return trip against the wind.
- Dr. Waldron from Yonkers made the mistake of ignoring the wood onramp, instead using the end of the Main Street wharf. His car immediately sank. He was able to push through the canvas top of his Buick touring car and lift himself and his son out.
- In 1907, when the ice bridge lasted until mid-March, New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur S. Tompkins commuted daily over the ice bridge by horse and sleigh from his home in Upper Nyack to his office in White Plains.
Thrills on the Icy Racetrack
A special horse racing track ran north parallel to the shore about a half mile out on the river, stretching from the ice bridge itself to Hook Mountain. Horses, wearing special spiked shoes, pulled small sleighs known as cutters. Races were common.
Car racing was held on a track slightly south of the ice bridge crossing. Car tires were outfitted with chains with the youngest drivers throwing the cars into skids so they could throw out ice splinters.
Express train against a car, a plane, and an ice boat. (We wouldn’t think this much of a race today, but those were the early days for cars and planes.) The train had to make stops so it was more of pacesetter. The car skidded too much on the ice, and the plane had to quarter against the wind so its forward speed was poor. The ice boat was king that day.
A Bittersweet Ending
The gradual fading of the ice bridge wasn’t abrupt but a slow retreat, anticipated by seasoned river dwellers. Mighty floes erased traces of its existence, a testament to nature’s unstoppable force. Today, cautious minds tread lightly on the Hudson’s frozen expanse, yet Nyack’s ice bridge remains immortalized within the treasury of frozen memories—a testament to the indomitable spirit of community, adventure, and the magic that once thrived upon its icy domain.
Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.
Editor’s note: This article is sponsored and written by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.