Behind-The-Scenes Of Walkway’s Thank You To Frontline Workers

As a New York State Park, Walkway Over the Hudson – the World’s Longest Elevated Pedestrian Bridge – has remained open and accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But to keep a 1.28-mile-long linear park towering 212 feet above the Hudson River safe and sanitized for the public is a massive undertaking. New protocols had to be put in place. Spaces where people could gather needed to be closed. Cleaning schedules doubled and new signage was to be created. All this on top of the day-to-day management required to ensure the Walkway remained in its standard top form. At every turn, the Walkway team is going above-and-beyond for the community.

Walkway’s New York State Parks team practicing social distancing in the park.

Three entities together support Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation is responsible for park management. The New York State Bridge Authority is charged with the upkeep of the structure, and the Friends of the Walkway nonprofit organization takes the park to another level with events, amenities, fundraising, volunteers, and stewardship. All three, plus the more than 620,000 people that visit the park each year, make up the ethos of the Walkway: to serve as The Great Connector (the nickname the bridge was given upon its opening in 1889) between places, people, and generations.

In the time of COVID-19, connection is born of gratitude. As the our community bands together to thank essential personnel with everything from signs in windows to food deliveries from local restaurants, Walkway Over the Hudson wanted to make a statement as only the largest and most visible icon of the Hudson Valley can. A 202-foot-long ‘THANK YOU!’ would be spelled out in lights across the bridge at twilight, and with the Mid-Hudson Bridge and Hudson River beckoning in the distance, frontline workers in the region and across the country would be honored with a grand display befitting their grand efforts.

A digital blueprint of the proposed project, created by Walkway board member Kathy Smith

Project Planning

Like many big ideas, this one began to take shape in a kitchen. Armed with an engineering background and love of community, Friends of the Walkway board member Kathy Smith took the lead on designing the lighting installation. After compiling an array of measurements, Kathy began roughly laying out letters, tweaking and fine-tuning sizing, before calculating exactly how many points of light it would require to literally make the Walkway shine. 

Early tests of letter layouts in the kitchen of Walkway board member Kathy Smith

Meanwhile, fellow board member Bob Kaminsky and aerial photographer Scott Snell were working with a team of Walkway staff members and volunteers to figure out how to bring the installation to life through photos and videos. A drone was sent skyward for test shots. Digital mockups were created, lighting was manipulated, and calls for assistance went out to the Mid-Hudson Bridge (to turn its lights blue) and Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office (to dispatch two boats to the Walkway to uplight the structure). 

A test shot from high above the Walkway. Safety cones marked the proposed letters. (Photo: Scott Snell)

Both teams worked together to ensure everything could be pulled off safely – meaning at social distance, and by crews of volunteers that wore face coverings and did not gather, nor interact with an undue number of people from the general public.

Between the mathematical layout, creative direction, and necessary safety precautions, the project took shape over the course of a few days. Weather reports were scoured, and a date was selected – Tuesday, April 28. Fittingly, National Superhero Day.

Blueprints and instructions to create the individual letters on the Walkway deck

Making It Happen

On the morning of April 28, the first group of volunteers arose before the sun to head to the Walkway prior to opening. Their task was to outline the letters in tape with the bridge deck clear of guests so that the build team could accurately begin to place luminaries that afternoon.

Volunteers outlined the letters on the Walkway prior to the park’s opening on April 28 (Photo: Irv Solero)

As the park’s first visitors began completing their round-trip loops, volunteers reconvened at 10 a.m. to build the 1,300 bags that would later hold the lights. Each had to be unfolded, stabilized with a bag of sand inside, and clipped to a second bag. Each set of two was then placed into a crate to be loaded onto a trailer. This took place at two stations, one on each side of the bridge.

Assembled luminaries awaiting transport to the center of the Walkway (Photo: Irv Solero)

Once the bags were upright, they had to be illuminated. Another volunteer shift began at 3:30 p.m., and 1,300 tea lights were switched on before everything was carted to the middle of the Walkway at 5 p.m. when the bridge closed to the public. 

Luminaries ready for their journey onto the Walkway (Photo: Irv Solero)

With all the materials dropped off at the Center Overlook and only two and half hours before twilight, staffers and volunteers from the Friends of the Walkway and New York State Parks raced to place the luminaries into formation and add a light to each bag. The aerial photography team began creating test shots. Working diligently, the plan was executed without a hitch, and all that was left to do was wait for the sun to set.

Volunteers building each letter from more than 1,300 luminaries (Photo: Irv Solero)

A Stroke of Luck

As dusk descended, the two boats from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office were struggling to put off enough light to bring the Walkway to life in the encroaching twilight. Without light underneath the deck, the shape of the Walkway would be lost in the scene. Then, off in the distance, a massive tugboat appeared, charging south toward New York City. The photo crew on the Walkway radioed the Sherriff’s boats with a request. Could they kindly ask the tug if it would be willing to stop and fire its spotlights for a few minutes?  Thanks to amazing timing and the kindness of a stranger, the Walkway was shining brightly against the night sky.

A tugboat randomly passing through stopped to shine light on the Walkway (Photo: Geoff Brault)

Getting The Shot

With the sun below the horizon and everything in place, Scott dispatched his drone into the sky. Over the course of 20 minutes, he would zig and zag across the surface of the Walkway covering all angles, creating both magnificent video clips and striking still imagery. The video to be sent to television stations across America, and the stills to be printed, framed, and provided to frontline workers throughout the Hudson Valley.

The Results

Photo: Scott Snell – SDSImagery.com – Courtesy Zero Point Aerial