Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.
-Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
There’s something about trains. Even travel as prosaic as workaday commuting is elevated by the rail. That drinking is still allowed on the trains of Amtrak and Metro North and the Long Island Railroad represents one of the the enduring mysteries of our time of smoking, trans fat and salt bans. My favorite ride is not the Connecticut-bound train laden with its own bar car, however, but the early morning commuter special of Amtrak’s Empire Service line, Albany to New York, with stops in Hudson, Rhinecliff, Poughkeepsie, Croton Harmon and Yonkers along the way. The elevated cars’ dark blue interiors are silent but for the tapping of keys on hundreds of laptops, pushing the business of the State of New York via cellular uplink to distant towers north and south. This route hugs the eastern bank of the Hudson River, only rarely straying more than a few yards from the water’s edge. For much of the trip spanning Dutchess County, the train runs west of a large tidal estuary, the Tivoli Bays, over a gravel embankment and trestles just a few feet over the water, and might as well be rushing along on the surface of the river itself. The Spuyten Duyvil, at the boundary of the Bronx and Manhattan, is the only swing bridge on the route, spanning the Harlem River–or what’s left of it.
There are a number of explanations for this odd consonant-laden Dutch name, ranging from fact to pure fiction. Washington Irving, of Sleepy Hollow repute, popularized the best-known fictional version, which has a Dutch coronetist threaten to swim the span en spijt den Duyvil, “in spite of the Devil,” during the British attack on New Amsterdam in 1664. Reginald Pelham Bolton explains in his disarmingly thorough history of Washington Heights that the name refers to the “sprouting meadow” that appears above a vernal fresh-water spring at the base of Inwood Hill.
The most likely-seeming version is so old as to be apocryphal, but based as it is from a mariner’s perspective rather than a landlubber meadow-lover’s or a that of a fictitious creek-swimmer, the “Devil’s Whirlpool” is convincing: it refers to the strong, variable currents that swirl the headwaters of the Hudson at the creek’s outlet.
A train allows nearly automatic travel; as soon as you’re on, you’re on the way, with no further responsibilities. It’s like plane travel in this way, but far less cumbersome to undertake, being so much more cheaply and easily entered into. Its progress is smooth and quiet, and people sleep like they’re dead on trains, at all hours. There is no better place to think medium to longish thoughts, as de Botton explained–and on the Empire Service run, there’s something about the the river, striated by wind and bridges and dotted with boats and birds, and the variation in the scenery passing in the middle distance on the far shore, that vouchsafes the mind.
What water remains flowing beneath the Spuyten Duyvil bridge is technically the Harlem River Ship Canal, whose channel is almost entirely manmade. The original course of the river included an oxbow winding northward around the promontory of Marble Hill, which in fact sits on a solid eruption of bedrock “Inwood” marble, and was until 1913 physically part of the island of Manhattan. In 1914, the original creekbed was entirely filled in–it now runs invisibly underground beneath a U-Haul truck lot on West 230th Street. The canal was realigned once again in 1930, this time separating a small slice of the Bronx from its native soil. Marble Hill has nevertheless managed to remain part of Manhattan, with 212 area codes, while the orphaned spit of the Bronx was absorbed by its adoptive island landmass, presumably under agreement to shed its accent. The mouth of this channel, canal, creek or river, according to your preference, has stayed largely in the same place through all this course-work, and has been bridged for a very long time. The baronial Frederick Felipse built what was called the King’s Bridge in 1673, which was ignominiously the first in the New World to charge a toll; the farmer Jacob Dyckman raised community funds to build a free bridge alongside it in 1758. Both were razed a few decades later by the Continental Army retreating north from the British during the Revolutionary War.
Train travel obviates the weather; neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night delay their steely progress, although oncoming track traffic at times does. On an Amtrak train, the best windows regardless of the weather outside are in the cafe car, which is only rarely occupied with onboard concessions, and on northbound Friday evenings becomes a rolling amateur wine tasting room. Fixed tables and vinyl-padded benches are less comfortable to occupy than the upholstered recliners in the coach cars, but the unfettered expanse of shatter-resistant glass is worth this sacrifice. Sunsets over the Shawangunk Ridge south of New Paltz decoct the atmosphere of the valley, with the particulate emanating from Saugerties and Athens‘ active cement plants inducing bright reds and orange when the wind is right.
Trains came early to the Hudson River Valley, with the Dutch settlements from Fort Orange to Wiltwijck, later called Albany and Kingston, having established the region as a hotbed for trade of all sorts from the 17th century onward. Homely Kingston was the capitol of the New York State before Albany; the stone statehouse there survived the Revolutionary War because it was set too far inland for the British gunboats‘ cannons to reach. The Hudson River Railroad connected from an original depot at Hudson and Chambers Street downtown to Peekskill by 1849, Poughkeepsie by 1850, and Albany by 1851. Train traffic and bridge technology abetted one another throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1899 Robert Giles designed the steel Spuyten Duyvil Swing Bridge that still operates today. Its 610 foot long span includes 290 feet of moveable turntable, moored with huge pilings sunken at the center, capable of swinging open 65 degrees to create 100 foot-wide channels on either side. The turntable was powered by a steam engine until 1963, when an electric motor was added, and has been manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year continuously since opening. The bridge was built to accommodate two tracks, although today only one is in use, on account of its age, and allows only five feet of clearance above the water, making it impassable to all but kayakers and waterfowl in the closed position. The bridge is no more the same structure now that it was when it opened at the turn of the 20th century than we are the same person we were cellularly speaking 10 years ago; water is unkind to steel, and every strut, rivet and truss has been replaced during 112 years of service.
Spuyten Duyvil Bridge is easy to miss, seated onboard a train as it rolls across at 40 or 50 miles per hour. The George Washington Bridge catches the eye, looming in the distance, and a long-haul off-hour train, inbound from Montreal by way of Rutland, might be almost as long the bridge itself. Water traffic takes priority over train ingress and egress, and the bridge’s static position is open, somewhat counterintuitively, from a regular commuter’s perspective. This is because a boat takes substantially longer to arrest completely than a train, especially a laden 3,000,000 pound barge, its pilot tugboat pushing from 200 feet behind a blind prow. The bridge was damaged in a collision with an errant oil tanker barge in 1982, and remained in the open position for the following 9 years, until Amtrak completed its consolidation of the Empire Service line; all northbound trains used the 138th Street lift bridge during the intervening period. A total of six other bridges span the Harlem River, and all are lift bridges operated only infrequently due to their minimum 24 feet of “down position” clearance. The Spuyten Duyvil Bridge typically closes and reopens 52 times per day, with some time off for good behavior on the weekends.
There has been talk of a high-speed train link from Albany to Washington, D.C., which might finally be realized in the near future with Obama-era stimulus funding. A bullet train would require a new bridge linking Manhattan to the mainland. As conventional trains are incapable of climbing and descending sudden steep hills, a swing bridge would most likely still be required at this junction, so perhaps the Spuyten Duyvil name will be kept, hard as it is to pronounce. It would seem reasonable to be in favor of a faster ride from New York City to the center of the Hudson Valley for a variety of reasons, but I, for one, would like to see the trip get cheaper, not shorter, and a bullet train would not cost less than the already ruinously expensive Amtrak does. This essay was written almost entirely on the two legs of a round trip, separated by a weekend: the 7:15pm out of Pennsylvania Station, Gate 5 East, and the 7:51am from Rhinecliff, Track 2, at a total cost of $52. A faster train might have pushed it to three trips, and made me miss this deadline.