BY CHERYL SLAVIN
On the sparkling Saturday morning of May 17 a crowd of past and present Stony Point and Grassy Point residents turned out in Vincent Clark Park to witness the rededication of the original cast iron Penny Bridge plaque.
The event was hosted by the Schassler and Phillips families who had kept the plaque safe for over 60 years after the demolition of the former bridge and subsequent construction of the present span. Notables in attendance also included Supervisor Geoff Finn, retired police chief Steve Scurti, Legislator Doug Jobson and Highways Superintendent Larry Brissing.
At least since the turn of the 19th century, there has been a bridge that connects Grassy Point to Stony Point and the Rockland mainland. Around 1875, however, as the brick industry boomed along the Hudson River in Stony Point and Haverstraw, town officials recognized the need for a bridge that could accommodate the barges and sloops that serviced the factories. The resulting feat of—for that time— modern engineering was the Penny Bridge, a movable span so well balanced on its central gear that it could be turned by one man with nothing more than a wrench.
When water craft needed to pass through, the entire bridge rotated perpendicular to the banks of Cedar Pond Brook over which the bridge extended. The bridge got its name from the penny charged for overland passage. For $900 a year, the bridge caretaker performed both the gear turning and the toll collecting functions.
The original plaque, naming town officials such as Supervisor F. Tomkins, Town Clerk E.A. Thompson, and the Town Justices, adorned the bridge until its demise in 1951. Tom Schassler’s father, Maurice Schassler, was superintendent of highways at the time. Recognizing its historical significance, Maurice rescued the plaque from the demolition heap and took it home. It remained in his garage for the next ten years, and continued in the custody of the Schassler and Phillips families for over 60 years.
“I remember seeing the plaque in my grandmother’s garage,” recalls Tim Phillips, Maurice’s grandson and Tom’s nephew. “Sometime after my grandmother passed, the plaque ended up in my garage.”
“We held on to it all this time,” explains Tom Schassler, “because we knew it was an important link to the town’s history. We had hoped that one day it would be part of a museum, but since that hasn’t happened, we decided to return it to its original location near the Penny Bridge.”
Frank Leroy restored the plaque. He carefully worked around a section that had broken off some time during its original 75 year lifespan, and which remains missing to this day. Then, with the help of the Stony Point Town Board, Highway Superintendent Larry Brissing and Building and Grounds Supervisor Richard Ryder, an appropriate spot in Vincent Clark Park, just a few feet away from the current bridge, was chosen as the plaque’s new home.
The rededication ceremony not only commemorated the history of the bridge, but the communities it connected. The Schasslers, along with several other participants, brought photographs dating back to the 1940s and earlier, and happily reminisced before and after the ceremony about the era when Grassy Point was a thriving hamlet worthy of its own post office.
“We can’t talk about the Penny Bridge without mentioning St. Joseph’s Church,” Schlasser said during his dedication speech. “It was built by local residents with bricks supplied by the local brickyards. It was part of a much larger community that included a general store, a foundry, two hotels, a firehouse, a school and a bakery.” Time, however, along with changing demographics and economics, has brought about an altered landscape. Many of those institutions no longer exist except in the memories of the people who lived there.
Thanks to the stewardship and generosity of the Schassler and Phillips families, however, generations to come will have the plaque at Penny Bridge to mark the site where sloops and barges once plied the river, a reminder of communities past and their connection to Stony Pointers and Grassy Pointers present and future.