BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Elaborate ceremonies marking the completion of the project were held Friday, including the cutting of a red, white and blue banner, politicians glad-handing a smiling crowd and the driving of two Tappan fire engines across the new structure, as if to demonstrate its strength and durability.
Orangetown Supervisor Andrew Stewart began the ceremonies at 1 p.m. by introducing all of the guests and dignitaries present, including Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, who had secured the all-important state funding to accomplish the yearlong project.
“It served us well over all these years,” Stewart remarked of the 125-year-old bridge the new one replaced, adding that the new bridge was designed and constructed to last at least a century itself before requiring any upgrades.
The short bridge straddles the Sparkill Creek in downtown Tappan, behind the Tappan Library and between the hamlet’s Memorial Park and the historic DeWint House Museum of the New York State Masons.
Town Highway Superintendent James Dean was in charge of the replacement project since Oak Tree Road is a town highway.
He explained that the first known bridge was probably a wooden structure erected by the colonial settlers in the early 18th century. A second stone and masonry bridge was constructed in 1887 and in 1930 it was upgraded with more concrete and steel to reinforce it and give it another half-century of life.
Noticeably absent from the new bridge is the famous Tar Barrel Tree, which stood smack in the middle of the structure from the mid-18th century until the early 1950’s, when the diseased American Elm was finally removed.
Dean explained that the tree was apparently planted at that spot before there was a bridge, and when the original wooden structure was first constructed, workers routed Oak Tree Road around the tree. Later upgrades and replacements kept the tree in the middle of the road, growing through a large hole at its center.
Dean said the tree was considered important to Tappan, because patriotic settlers there raised a burning barrel of tar from a rope strung over a high tree limb, to signal to all the inhabitants that the Revolutionary War was over and the American patriots had won, creating a new nation called the United States of America.
The tree was so important, in fact, that successive bridges to replace the original wooden structure were carefully designed and built to allow Oak Tree Road to go around the tree and preserve it for future generations. Amused residents from the mid-20th century recalled at Friday’s ceremony how much fun it was to drive over the bridge and swerve slightly to avoid hitting the tree in the middle of the road, where the white dividing line was. It was especially fun to watch strangers to the area suddenly come upon that tree smack in the middle of the road, they chuckled, and see them slam on their brakes and stare at the elm in bewilderment.
History lost out to old age, however, and the elm was little more than a lifeless skeleton by 1950, Dean recalled. For safety reasons, the remaining stump was finally removed at the end of that decade and the remaining hole filled in with concrete and macadam.
By the early 21st century, town, county and state officials discovered that the 1887 bridge, although upgraded in 1930, had seriously deteriorated and now required complete replacement. The cost estimate was over $1 million at the time, and Dean said he had no money in his budget that year for any such project so it got put onto a back burner.
He spent the next few years trying to find the money to replace the bridge again, Dean explained, finally hitting pay dirt when Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee was able to secure a $1.2 million state grant for the project in 2008.
By then however the total cost of the project had risen to nearly $2 million, Leaving Dean scrambling to find money to cover the balance.
Jaffee tenaciously hung on to her original grant, he explained Friday, and was eventually able to secure an additional $500,000 last year. Combined with $400,000 the Orangetown Town Board finally granted Dean last year as well, he had his funding in hand and was able to hire McLaren Engineering to start design work on the new bridge.
Work on the project began last October, and lasted almost 10 months until Tuesday, when the last of the barricades and construction equipment was removed from the site, and traffic was finally allowed to cross the new structure for the first time.
To pay homage to the departed elm tree, Dean had a flowering cherry tree in a huge pot plunked down on the centerline of the new structure for Friday’s ceremony. He explained that there wasn’t time to find an actual elm, an endangered species today because of the notorious Dutch elm disease. A real live elm will be located, he added, but instead of being planted on or in the bridge, it will be donated to the New York State Masons and planted on their historic DeWint House property adjacent to the bridge, with an appropriately worded sign to explain its significance.
Dean praised several people for their assistance on the bridge project, saying it could not have been accomplished without them. Among them were town engineers Joseph Moran and Bruce Peters and local resident Mal McLaren, whose firm designed and built the new structure.
In addition to introducing town officials at the ceremony, Dean also acknowledged representatives from the Tappan Library, Tappantown Historical Society, Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance, Tappan Fire Department, Town Historian Mary Cardenas, Tax Receiver Robert Simon, Building Inspector John Giardiello.
Among the bridge’s anecdotes recalled by Dean is the fact that the original bridge was unusual for its day in being 35 feet wide, which was considered extraordinary in its time. The only reason it was that wide, he explained, was because it was designed and built to go around the elm tree which already stood there, and was considered a local historical landmark. The new bridge is also 35 feet in width, meeting today’s standards and also meaning that no additional property needed to be acquired for widening, a big time and financial savings to the town.
Dean, who joined the Highway Department in 1957 and became superintendent in 1978, said he remembers the old elm tree well, having to plow around it every winter and ward off jokes from highway workers in other towns poking fun at Orangetown for having the only tree in the middle of the road in the entire county.
The new bridge should last 125 to 150 years before it needs replacement or upgrading again Dean said proudly, noting that it will then be “somebody else’s problem.”
Jaffee smiled broadly as she helped cut the ribbon for Friday’s ceremony, noting that it had been a struggle to find the necessary funding for the project, and to retain the funding over several years while design and other elements took precedence.
There are 65,000 bridges nationally designated as “structurally deficient” she said, of which the Oak Tree Road structure had been but one. She was able to get the money primarily because the bridge straddles the Sparkill Creek, which suffers from pollution, overdevelopment and other degrading factors.
The new bridge will help alleviate flooding in the area and allow the creek to flow freely through Tappan, she explained, thus putting the project at the top of list for government funding.
Doing the honors of officially opening the new bridge for the Tappan Fire Department was 65-year-member Alan Seebach, who drove the department’s 1947 pumper across during the ceremonies as the first vehicle to cross it. That was quickly followed by another Tappan fire truck, much newer and much larger and heavier, as if to prove the strength and durability of the new structure.