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Fame Through Fiction

The picture above shows a concrete road bridge on a street in Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown, New York. As the New York State historical marker makes clear, yes, it’s that Sleepy Hollow. I took the picture on a beautiful fall day last year, as I was in town for a project site visit. I have to say that, despite my reasonably good imagination, I had a hard time picturing being chased down that suburban street, past the gas station and houses, by a spectral rider on a horse.

The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is not an old myth or legend. The character was created by Washington Irving in a story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1819. There’s a great deal of speculation as to where Irving got the idea for the character, and there are much older headless horsemen in legends elsewhere. It’s a certain kind of genius to take an old legend, write a modern short story using it, and have that story, 200 years later, eclipse the original legend in fame. Of course, back then Tarrytown was not a suburb, it was one of a number of towns making a living off traffic on the Hudson River. The Hudson valley was the setting for a good amount of action during the Revolutionary War; in Irving’s time Tarrytown was most famous for having been where Major André was captured, exposing the betrayal of Benedict Arnold.

On to more important matters…the bridge. It carries Sleepy Hollow’s Broadway across the Pocantico River, which is, despite the name, a tiny creek feeding into the Hudson. Broadway is a piece of the old Albany Post Road, running 140 miles from New York up to Albany. There’s a bit of conflicting information on the chronology of the bridge, but here’s how I think it goes:

1. A wood bridge – by all accounts, a king-post pony truss – was built here in the eighteenth century. It was almost certainly rebuilt and or replaced at least once. Here’s a possible picture of the last version of it, colorized and possibly otherwise altered, in the mid-1800s: Visit Sleepy Hollow. This is the one that Bridgehunter calls Headless Horseman Bridge (Older).

2. A masonry arch bridge was built here, probably in 1872. It lasted until 1912. Those dates do not agree with Bridgehunter’s Headless Horseman Bridge (Old) but seem to fit the timeline and the information from the town at the Visit Sleepy Hollow link. Given the tiny size of the stream, boat traffic was not an issue, so why was something as solid as a masonry arch replaced? Here’s a photo from 1910 or shortly afterwards:

It appears that the arch was an elliptical “basket-handle” arch, and that sag in the middle is not good. Something has gone seriously wrong there. My guess is that someone – let’s blame an engineer, since they’re the ones who do this – said that it would have to be entirely rebuilt to be safe. So it was replaced.

3. A concrete bridge was built here in 1912, heavily modified in 1933 and again in the 1950s. That’s the one in my picture up top, and Bridgehunter’s Headless Horseman Bridge.

We’re a very long way from the simple wood truss Irving knew, and about as far from the gothic covered bridge in the 1999 movie. But the name and fame are the same.