In addition to freight trains, the bridge hosted passenger trains connecting Boston, New York, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington as early as 1890. Trolley cars termed “rapid transit”, were modified to run on both trolley and railroad tracks and served tourists, students and shoppers (from New Paltz to Lucky Platt’s). Special West Point Football trains ran from 1921-1930. Circus trains, milk trains, trains for hogs and cattle – the uses were varied and the impact was huge. At its peak as many as 3,500 rail cars crossed the bridge each day.
There were two sets of tracks until 1918, when gauntlet track, also called interleaved track, was installed to handle the weight of diesel locomotives. It was removed in 1958.
During World War II the bridge was painted black to make it less visible in the event of an attack. Painting continued until the 1960’s. The high quality of the steel used in the original construction does not need to be painted. Metal experts during reconstruction stated that the absence of paint in fact helped keep the steel in the good condition it is in today.
The fire that destroyed the tracks in 1974 was probably started by a spark from a train’s brakes. From Carleton Mabee's Bridging the Hudson, page 247. “An hour after a Penn Central train with 100 cars crossed the bridge on May 8, 1974, a thick cloud of black smoke hung over the bridge. Wooden ties were smoldering and wooden walkways were burning, fanned by a moderate breeze. Because Penn Central had no guards or maintenance men on the bridge at the time, the fire was not quickly reported. When firemen arrived at the site, they found they could not easily pump water up to the top of such a high bridge. When they tried turning on the water to flow into the steel pipe which ran the length of the bridge, a line meant to help fight fires, they found that because it had not been drained the previous winter, it had burst at several points – Penn Central had known it but had not repaired it.”
Rebuilt and re-opened in October 2009 as the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated friends group, the Dyson Foundation, many donors and New York State.
At 212 feet above the Hudson River, this 1.28 mile linear park boasts scenic views north to the Catskills and south to the Hudson Highlands.