BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
One of Rockland County’s most historic and picturesque bridges will be re-built by the Town of Orangetown in downtown Tappan next year, and both historians and residents appear to be united in their praise of the project.
The six-month effort will be undertaken when the weather breaks in early 2013, according to town Superintendent of Highways James Dean, who is spearheading the project and who outlined it at a recent Town Board meeting, for council members and the public alike.
The bridge carries Oak Tree Road over the Sparkill Creek, between the Tappan Memorial Park and the George Washington Masonic Museum at the 1700 DeWint House and Carriage House.
The bridge is one of the oldest in Rockland County, having first been constructed in the early 18th century.
At some point prior to the Revolutionary War it was converted from a single-lane bridge to a separated two-lane structure. The gap between the east and westbound lanes was to permit continued growth of a large oak tree that was planted on the banks of the Sparkill, where it winds through the downtown center of Tappan hamlet.
During the war itself, a bucket of tar would be lit by local patriots and hauled to the top of the tree by rope, alerting residents for miles around that British troops were in the area and to be on the alert to avoid them. The tree lasted until the mid 20th century, and was known for nearly 200 years as “the tar barrel tree,” a local landmark until it succumbed to old age and its remains were removed.
The last bridge built to accommodate that tree was constructed in 1897, according to town records uncovered by Dean. That stone structure was sheathed in concrete in the mid 1930’s, and the center hole that remained after the tree’s demise shortly thereafter was paved over, leaving no trace of its prominent place in history beyond the memories of the oldest residents and luckily some photographs preserved by the Tappantown Historical Society.
Unfortunately, Dean and a consultant explained, that fairly narrow bridge (it is only 19 feet in width) acts not only to carry vehicles over the Sparkill Creek, but also to block the flow of water in that stream after heavy rainfalls, contributing to a general flooding problem the area has endured for centuries.
A plan was developed a few years ago to replace the old bridge with a new and much larger structure, which would also permit a greater water flow, thus hopefully alleviating the flooding which plagues the Tappan and Palisades areas once or twice a year.
The Sparkill begins along Route 303 in Blauvelt and flows southeasterly through Orangeburg before snaking through Tappan, Palisades and even into northern Bergen County before doubling back and exiting through Sparkill and Piermont into the Hudson River.
It was considered a navigable river by the early Dutch and English settlers to the area, who could sail it from the Hudson inland to Sparkill and Tappan. It was supposedly named the Sparkill Creek because residents could see the spars of the passing ships as they sailed through the Piermont salt marsh, a “kill” being a creek in Old Dutch.
That era ended when dams were constructed along the Sparkill in Sparkill in the 19th century, creating both ice ponds and waterfalls high enough to power saw and flour mills.
Dean and consultant Steve Gregg of McLaren Engineering, a West Nyack firm specializing in such work, outlined the scope of the reconstruction project for a fascinated Town Board and audience of community members last month. They said their remarks echoed similar presentations they had made in the Tappan area earlier to explain the project in detail to local residents, and gather their reaction and input.
The project has been in the planning stages for several years, Dean explained, but was always put on the back burner because of a lack of funds.
That problem was finally solved in 2008 when New York State Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, who represents Orangetown in Albany, was able to secure a $1.2 million grant. The grant was specifically aimed at mitigating flooding in Tappan caused by the Sparkill, and removing the existing bridge and replacing it with a larger span fit that criterion perfectly, Dean noted. State officials were apprised of the plans and approved them, giving the town the green light to carry it out.
Dean then got authorization to hire McLaren Engineering for the actual design work, and that has been progressing for over a year, the two men noted.
They stressed at the meeting that the new bridge will blend in beautifully with the historic nature of downtown Tappan, and although it will be constructed of steel and concrete, it will be faced with stone, giving it a rustic and antique appearance.
Brick sidewalks and stone curbing will also be continued over the bridge along Oak Tree Road, where it already exists from an earlier project the town carried out a few years ago. Dean also explained that if any antique elements from the 1897 bridge are found when the existing structure is demolished, such as cornerstones or date stones, he would try to incorporate them into the new bridge.
Throughout the planning process, Dean said he worked with the Tappantown Historical Society and other local groups to make sure the plans met with their approval, and included their recommendations.
Also working with his own Highway Department and the consultants on this project are two other town departments: Parks and Recreation and the Department of Environmental Management and Engineering, also known as DEME, which includes the town engineer.
Gregg said the new bridge will be 40 feet wide, as compared to the present 19-foot width, and it will be about one foot higher than the current surface level.
It will take about six months to demolish and remove the current bridge and construct the new one, Dean said, which means that Oak Tree Road, a major thoroughfare in Tappan, will have to be closed for that length of time. Starting and completion dates have not yet been announced, but Dean promised to release them as soon as they are known so residents and merchants can prepare for alternate routes.
The easiest way into downtown Tappan from Route 303 will become Kings Highway, about a half-mile north from Oak Tree Road. Access to Tappan from Old Tappan and other parts of Orangetown will not be affected by the closure, including Kings Highway, Old Tappan Road, Washington Street, Main Street, Old Greenbush Road and Western Highway.
Dean explained that the new bridge will somewhat alleviate flooding in downtown Tappan, but will not completely cure the problem. That is because the Sparkill is such a meandering stream that it contains many bends and sharp turns, all of which tend to slow the flow of water during storms and heavy runoffs.
There are also many other bridges over the stream, including ones on Route 303, Kings Highway, Washington Street, Main Street, further east on Oak Tree Road, Livingston Street in nearby Northvale and numerous other locations, all of which serve to constrict the flow of water during storms.
Immediately north of the Oak Tree Road bridge, for example, the Sparkill almost completely encircles the small Tappan Memorial Park, which is located behind the Tappan Library and the Tappan Fire Department. The park can only be reached by three tiny footbridges over the creek, the most popular one being the rustic crossing behind the library.
Gregg and Dean said the current plans, and funding, cover only the replacement bridge, and whatever flooding relief that can provide. Additional plans have been made for straightening and widening the streambed north and south of the bridge, but that would cost an additional $600,000 to $700,000, which they explained is not contained within the current grant.
Nevertheless, those plans have been prepared under the grant, and can be carried out at any time in the future, if the town finds the funding from some other source, or from its own budget, which Dean said is unlikely under Orangetown’s present economic situation.