Robert Codgell Gilchrist was born into an extremely wealthy well-connected Charleston family in 1829. The oligarchic families of South Carolina had made their wealth on tobacco, rice, indigo, and shipping and Charleston harbor was one of the centers of the southern slave trade. Robert Gilchist’s father had received a federal Judgeship from President Martin Van Buren and he owned an opulent home.
Each summer the wealthy Gilchrist family journeyed north to avoid the hot humid subtropical summers of Charleston. They stayed with maternal family members in the Great Northern Wilderness of New York. (The term Adirondacks is said to have been first used by geologist and surveyor Ebenezer Emmons in 1838 and took some time to come into general use).
Robert Gilchrest’s father (Robert Budd Gilchrist or Judge Gilchrist) had married his cousin Mary Gilchrist in 1827. At the time it was not uncommon to consolidate family wealth and for cousins to marry. She was also related to the family of John Thurman in the Southern Adirondacks, and it is through this marriage and family connections that Gilchrest inherited thousands of acres in the Adirondacks upon his mother’s death in 1869.
As a young man growing up in fashionable Charleston, the only son of a Federal Judge, the young Robert Gilchrist led an extremely privileged life. He graduated from the College of Charleston, studied law, and began a lucrative law practice. He joined one the city’s premiere militia units, the Washington Light Infantry. At this time the nation was becoming more divided over the morality of slavery. The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was published, “bleeding Kansas” took place after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and in 1859 the slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, led by New York abolitionist John Brown, was crushed and Brown hanged.
When the Civil War broke out Robert Gilchrist stayed in Charleston and sided with the Confederacy at Charleston Harbor. He rose to the rank of Major under General P. G. T. Beauregard, the commander of Charleston. The city did not surrender until 1865 as General Sherman marched through South Carolina on his way to Georgia.
When the war ended, Major Gilchrist, his wife and young family traveled north to The Glen on the Hudson River in Warren County to inspect the property owned by his uncle (another Robert Gilchrist) and his mother, (Mary Gilchrist). Uncle Robert Gilchrist had looked after the family property and invested in local industries and railroads during the 1830s. He was particularly interested in Dr. Thomas Durant’s Adirondack Railroad, whose development north from Saratoga Springs had been delayed by the war. Now that the war was over (and the Union Pacific Railroad had been completed), Durant concentrated on building the railroad to North Creek. To that end Robert Gilchrist sold 1,542 acres to Durant with the understanding that a railroad depot would be built near Washburn Eddy on the Hudson River.
Robert Gilchrist, like many others, came to the Adirondacks with the idea of developing his lands. In 1866 he saw a land untouched by the war’s destruction and full of potential, not just for the new railroad, but also for the water power that could be harnessed on the many streams that fed into the Hudson River. He also saw the potential of tourism and the resort industry. He built his own grand home, Inglewood, along Harrington Road in the hamlet of Wevertown, on a hillside that overlooked the Hudson River in the town of Johnsburg (named for John Thurman).
The tracks of Durant’s railroad were just down the hill along the banks of the river. Gilchrist had plans for a bridge to cross the Hudson at Washburn Eddy. He decided on a John A. Roebling style suspension bridge, and enlisted the bridge engineer Charles McDonald to supervise the construction at a cost of over $8,000. Robert Gilchrist’s bridge, the first suspension bridge to cross the Hudson River, was dedicated on September 8, 1871 with a public celebration that included a special train and a picnic. Tables were constructed and placed on the bridge, champagne was served and there were plenty of speeches.
The bridge was about 25 feet above the normal water level, 15-feet wide, with a span of 230 feet. After it was built, a railroad depot would be constructed and passenger service could de-train and catch a stagecoach to Chestertown, Schroon Lake or North Creek.
At the same time Gilchrist’s crews were constructing the bridge the rival Central Bridge Company was selling stock and planning to build its own suspension bridge about three miles upriver at what was then known then Folsom Landing. The primary stockholders were nearby businessmen and hotel owners.
The Folsom’s Landing bridge was in a much better location. There was a ferry across the Hudson already established, and already existing roadways to the west, north and east. An editorial in a Glens Falls newspaper reported “Mr. Gilchrist has got a bridge built, but he has got to dig through a mountain of granite before he can have a road to get to the bridge from the Chester side of the river.”
In 1871 the Central Bridge Company’s stock sold rapidly at twenty-five dollars a share. The $15,000 was soon raised and the second suspension bridge to cross the Hudson River was constructed. Durant built a railroad depot called Riverside Station (now known as Riparius). By 1873 this rail stop was complete, utilizing stage coach service to the surrounding communities. “The arrivals and departures from this station average over fifty passengers daily,” it was reported. “We have the best depot on the [rail]road.”
So, what happened to Mr. Gilchrist’s Bridge ? As fate may have it, on April Fool’s Day, 1873, after a storm dropped almost four feet of heavy wet snow, the cables on one side of the bridge gave way. The Glens Falls Republican reported “On the 1st one of the anchorages of the suspension bridge at Washburn’s Eddy gave way, and the bridge now hangs on one cable bottom side up. The weight of the snow and the careless manner in which anchorages were built is the cause.” The remains of Gilchrest’s suspension bridge were taken down so as not to impede the drive of logs down the river that spring.
Major Gilchrist and his family returned to Charleston that summer. He continued his law practice, rather infrequently returning to the Adirondacks to manage the sale of his lands. The last 1,704 acres were not sold until after his death in 1902 at the age of 73.
So, what is left of this once interesting bridge ? After reading Rosemary Miner Peleky’s Adirondack Bridge Builder from Charleston: The Life and Times of Robert Codgell Gilchrist (1993), I decided to search out the location of the ill-fated bridge. I had recalled paddling down the Hudson River from Riparius to The Glen and seeing the cable anchors.
I also wanted to know if the bridge abutments were still visible. According to Pelkey they were, so with the assistance of tax maps and knowledgeable local residents I was able to contact the private property owners and obtain permission. I hiked down the east side of the Hudson River, eventually locating the site after several tries. The bridge abutments also remain on the west side of the Hudson.
The existing 55-mile railroad line from Saratoga to North Creek has been suffering from disuse. If it ever became a multi-purpose trial, the site of Gilchrist Bridge would make an interesting stop.
Illustrations, from above: Photo of Robert Codgell Gilchrist from the cover of Rosemary Miner Pelkey’s book; Topo map showing location of the Gilchrist Bridge and surrounding area; Map of Riverside Station to Weavertown & Riverside Station to Schroon Lake, Pottersville, Chestertown showing (Folsom’s Landing bridge) from Beers’ Atlas of Warren County (1876); Postcard showing the Folsom’s Landing (Riverside Station/Riparius) Bridge; Cables down to Washburn Eddy; and Bridge abutments, west side/river right/Johnsburg side (Mike Prescott).