The Bridge

The island sits in the middle of the Mohawk River, not far from its confluence with the Hudson. It is mostly wooded and undeveloped, as are the banks of the river on both sides, but that is recent. Underneath the lush vegetation are disused, sprawling, unpaved parking lots, filled in millraces and canals, bulldozed factory buildings, and roads that no longer function. In the middle of the once bustling industrial island is a fairly extensive set of factory buildings, what is left of a once much larger complex, now owned by the state and housing historic artifact storage and the offices of the historic archaeologists working for the State Historic Preservation Office.

A single narrow road ran onto the island from one side. And from the other side, a single track of rail connected the island to the mainland via an old trestle bridge.

I had work to do in the factory, but I had arrived way too early in the morning to get into the still-locked building. Or, to want to…interesting weather was happening outside and I wanted to watch it. I knew the sky was blue up above the fog that surrounded me because I had driven into the fog as I approached the river. Since the sun had only been up for a few minutes, the shadow of the forest grayed out the view in all directions. The fog rose from the river all around the island and dispersed at about 50 feet aloft, slowly forming and replacing itself, as though the island was an unmoving bit of froth floating in the middle of a giant slowly boiling pot. As I sat back on the hood of my car, sipping the coffee I had brought, I occasionally felt the sensation of dropping down, as though the island was an elevator and the shrouding wall of fog was the shaft down which I was riding, together with my car, the parking lot, and the factory behind me.

It was during one of those moments of sensing motion that I heard a vague, plaintive, and distant sound. I thought perhaps it was a train’s brakes from across the river. This siding that once served what must have been a very busy factory must go somewhere, perhaps to a nearby train yard. But as the sound got a bit louder I knew it was something else, something I still did not recognize.

I considered that the noise, slowly increasing in strength like it was getting either louder or closer (but I could not tell) was from a factory across the river. I really wasn’t sure what was over there. This island and the surrounding area was once a thriving industrial zone. The factory to my back, built by the only corporate resident the island ever hosted prior to the state takeover, made dry cleaning fluid. In fact, this is where modern dry cleaning was invented, and for years, most of the dry cleaning fluid used anywhere in the US was produced here and shipped out. It would have been loaded into tanker trucks as bulk or into box cars in in crated carboys or barrels on the loading facilities along side the still standing factory, and shipped, train load by train load, down the siding, across the single track across the lonely trestle bridge, which was at the moment engulfed entirely in the ever rising fog, and onward.

And I think that is what I was thinking about when I realized that the sound was coming from a point very near the trestle, as though it was emanating from something just across the narrow river, on the track itself.

Interesting. A hand-cranked railroad cart that needed oiling? An old firetruck with a broken siren? A group of boyscouts with a dying hippopotamus?

No, no, not a hippopotamus. Too artifactual sounding. Too human-made sounding. More like the siren, like an old fashioned air raid siren. And as I listened, not only did it get louder, but I had the distinct impression that it was getting closer.

As it did so, I began to realize that it was actually some sort of music. A loud, droning, siren-like background with a smaller, but still strong, melody playing somewhere inside the drone.

And as I watched the bridge, and the fog waxed and waned but mainly kept its strength, still rising up out of the river valley below the trestle and rising fifty feet or so above, I could see movement. First, something moving back and forth like a pendulum. Then a few things moving back and forth, then two objects, down low at knee height, moving up and down alternately like…like knees, actually. Knees of someone marching. Marching on the tracks.

As the sound became even louder, I realized that all the back-and-forth, pendulum-like forms were tassels and cloths and the parts of a kilt and a big furry hat, and the knee-like objects were knees under the kilt, and the sound was indeed a bagpipe.

The piper marched, bag-pipe style, along the trestle bridge, stepping on each railroad tie perfectly and without looking down, playing the droning machine and the melody…some kind of fierce war music no doubt…as he approached.

He did not acknowledge my presence with any signal whatsoever, and there was no eye contact on his part. He marched to the near end of the trestle and off it, into the parking lot in which I sat, fifty feet in front of me. He stopped his forward motion but not his marching, keeping time in place and staring straight ahead, in full regalia, for several bars of the music, which at this point was very, very loud from where I sat.

I watched. I took a sip of my coffee. I took a drag on my Camel. I watched some more.

And he turned around and marched, at the same pace, taking a full minute or so, back onto the bridge, into the wall of fog, and into obscurity. Never to be seen again. By me. I assume he did this every morning, owing to the fact that he never once misstepped on the trestle bridge, which surely would have resulted in a broken leg, the stoppage of his pipes to be replaced by a lot of screaming and wailing. Even not able to see through the fog, if that had happened, I would have been able to tell by the sound.

Maybe.

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3 Responses to “The Bridge”

  1. April 12th, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    chezjake says:

    Peebles Island. Great spot, now with some very nice picnic facilities, including a pavilion overlooking the Hudson that can be rented for groups, weddings, etc. An awesome place for a piper to practice as well. That old rail trestle going to Waterford has now been converted to a single lane roadway bridge with a wide board walkway alongside. (Photos linked from the link below.)

    Not sure where you got the idea about manufacture of dry cleaning chemicals — I haven’t been able to document that. The industrial buildings were part of the local Cluett, Peabody empire (home of Arrow shirts and of the “Sanforized” process of pre-shrinking fabrics — which was mechanical, not chemical), and the buildings on Peebles Island are supposedly the “bleachery” where fabrics were bleached before being fabricated into shirts, etc. at the main plant across the river in Troy.
    http://wiki.worldflicks.org/peebles_island.html#coords=%2842.784012,%20-73.681365%29&z=17

    And, back in those days, I smoked Camels too.

  2. April 12th, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Good job on ID-ing the spot! My info on the dry cleaning was provided to me by someone who worked there. It was probably all wrong. There was no Wikipedia back then!

  3. April 12th, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    You are right, of course, that it was Cluett and Peabody and there was a big sign till up that said something about Sandfordizing. Sanford was a person who owned an earlier version of the factory or the company, as I recall. But that could be wrong to.

    He had a son who worked with him. They say it was called “Sanford and Son” …

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