Saugatuck Railroad Bridge: The Project No One Talks About

Everyone is talking about the William F. Cribari Bridge. It’s over 130 years old. Should it be renovated, or replaced?

No one is talking about the Saugatuck River railroad bridge. It’s 116 years old. It too is nearing the end of its useful life.

Metro-North railroad bridge, looking south toward Long Island Sound.

The Metro-North span is one of 8 movable train bridges in the state. If it is replaced by a fixed structure — a project that could cost $75 million — what will happen to businesses upriver, like marinas, that depend on it being opened?

And if it is unable to open, what does that mean for the equipment — tugboats, barges, piledrivers — needed to dredge the river?

Railroad bridge over the Saugatuck River. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

Speaking of which: When will the river be dredged?

The last major work was done in the 1950s. Before and after, barges traveling to and from the Gault oil tanks (around the site of what is now Saugatuck Sweets) sometimes scraped the bottom of the river. Those barges, and tugboats accompanying them, helped maintain the river.

The Gault oil tanks on Riverside Avenue, between the Cribari Bridge (left) and the railroad bridge, were not environmentally healthy for the Saugatuck River. But barge and tugboat traffic helped prevent buildup of silt on the bottom.

First Selectwoman Diane Farrell turned down funding for a dredging project, more than 20 years ago. Since then, the addition of businesses like kayak rentals and the Saugatuck Rowing Club has spurred an increased demand for recreational opportunities.

There are signs near the Levitt Pavilion that the river is becoming unnavigable. If a navigable channel is dry at low tide, it will no longer be maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Saugatuck River is becoming unnavigable at times far south of the Pavilion. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

What will that do to the waterway that once drove commerce all the way from Saugatuck to downtown — and which figures prominently in plans for a revitalization of downtown, with ideas like docks and a floating restaurant?

The other day, the Army Corps took some river samples, tied to possible work on the railroad bridge. They’re likely to find contamination in the area of that span, and I-95. Decades of train travel, and cars and trucks driving on the nearby highway, must have had an impact on the river below.

The railroad and I-95 bridges. (Photo/Brandon Malin)

Westporters should consider — and be talking about — the futures of both the Saugatuck River from Long Island Sound up to the Post Road bridge, and the Saugatuck River railroad bridge near its mouth.

The Cribari Bridge is important. But its just one part of an entire marine and transportation ecosystem that impacts our entire town.

The Saugatuck River, near Rive Bistro (Photo/Lauri Weiser)

22 responses to “Saugatuck Railroad Bridge: The Project No One Talks About

  1. What a great job, Dan! Like the Times new picture journalism pieces on the website, without the fancy vertical scroll. Find some 15-year-old to do that scroll for you. Don’t you love the old drawings of big three-masted schooners docked where Arezzo is now?

  2. Where did the $75M figure come from? A Hearst story back from 2015 says $350M, and knowing the the way our state government works (or doesn’t) it’s probably some multiple on that. Considering CT’s record with the rail system, we’d be better off outsourcing its operation to a well-run railroad company, and laying off the bevy of state bureaucrats pretending to manage it.

  3. If l lived on Ferry Lane East I’d want to make sure that unique pedestrian walkway across the bridge was retained. That was a concession to Westport for letting the RR come through. BTW, a significant area of contamination, according to the last test by the Corp, seems to be in the portion of the river adjacent to the former town dump – now the site of the library and the Levitt. Some have expressed the concern that disturbing all these toxic materials – and then dumping them at an underwater site in long Island Sound may not be the best choice from an environmental standpoint. I think New York has objected to this practice. But I’m not positive.

  4. Here’s a video of the bridge opening that I made in 2015. It’s an awesome structure

    • Mary Schmerker

      Thank you. That was awesome!

    • Awesome video!
      Amazing what was engineered, built and accomplished in the mid to late 1890s.

      By the way, this video popped up after yours played.
      Walk Bridge Norwalk. Looks who’s speaking at the press conference.

      The Norwalk replacement is supposed to move up and down.
      Just use the same design for Saugatuck Bridge.

      • Thanks, Wendy. When I started to watch your video, I thought it looked familiar! 15 seconds of fame.

  5. Thank you Dan for highlighting a key aspect of Westport’s longevity and potential vitality. The viability of water traffic on the Saugatuck River is crucial to our town’s long term outlook. With it without boat traffic, it will be a factor that can’t be ignored.

  6. Matthew Mandell

    Thanks Morley. I was just going to post on that.

    The walkway was to removed in 2007 version of the 2010 project start, never atarted. Then FS Joseloff and I worked with DOT to have it re-included. Since then DOT has said it would be part of the next version, BUT that does not mean we should not ensure that’s the case and be on them every step of the way. We cannot lose a walkable and green way to access the station and Saugatuck and vice versa for workers and walkers alike.

  7. Back in the 50’s, as children, we used to love to ride our bikes across the RR bridge — no idea if our parents had a clue of the adventures we had.

  8. This is a big one! The MTA bridge needs to be replaced with an opening access bridge but the costs are imense and the disruptions will be even bigger. Norwalk is just starting on their MTA swing bridge replacement and the costs are slated to be about 1 billion! Thats right 1 billion!
    We need to take some lessons and study how many countries and cities in Europe have tackled and overcome these problems with some pretty innovating approaches.
    This is the infrastructure problem that this country has been sweeping under the carpet for too long. Spending trillions on senseless and coastly wars since the 70’s and letting our infrastructure ROT away!
    As for preserving and dredging the Saugatuck lower river it must and should happen. Most consider this part of the Saugatuck River to be one of Westports most endearing and valuable town assets. To let it turn into a tidal mudflat bog would be one of the all time greatest mistakes this Town and Connecticut could ever make!

  9. Donald Bergmann

    Many excellent comments. As to pollution, the runoff from I-95 is also an environmental problem. The runoff system sadly directs water from the road into the Saugatuck River.
    Dredging – A really important issue. Dewey Loselle had worked on it, now Sara Harris and Peter Ratkiewich are spearheading the effort. Money is a big issue, hopefully the Biden administration will be more supportive of these kinds of necessary expenditures. The Town or private sources may have to chip in.
    Whimsical thought: If the dredging results in a much deeper channel under the Bridges, could that mean that during low tide, boats could go under without the need for opening the bridges. Possibly it could help as to some boats, but it seems worth investigating. I have brought up the matter with Sara Harris and other Town officials. No response as yet.

    Dredging is crucial to many aspects of Westport, including pure aesthetics. I know one person on the BoF who does not agree with that, at least not as to having Westport incur any cost related to dredging. That person needs convincing.

    Don Bergmann

    • Good news, Don; the town just announced that all the dredging glop will be placed in the new town dump which is located where Barons South Park used to be.

  10. I’m curious about the age of the bridge. When J.P. Morgan took over the RR in 1892, he had it rebuilt into a 4 track grade separated railroad. This would mean this replaced an earlier 4-track bridge.

    A curiosity, the first bridge to be electrified, the Mianus River bridge in Greenwich, has no wires above the draw–trains have to glide over it. You can notice it in that the ventilation shuts off for a coupler of seconds. In the ancient multiple unit equipment (self propelled cars) built in the 1930’s, the lights would go out as well.

  11. The dredging under the areas of the bridges would only allow some additional clearance at low tide as at high tide the clearance above water level is only about 5-6 feet.
    If we have only one person on a Town board that wants to use their position on a important Town matter that a large percentage of townspeople favor, they should eiter recuse themselves or be removed from that board!

  12. Robbie Guimond

    Some recent channel depths data…

    I believe the excavation needed for safe navigation would NOT be needed under the three bridges.

    Looking at the data and personal experience shows areas next to Saugatuck harbor yacht club, Stoney Point near the Rivers entrance, down by the riv’ bistro and up towards rt 1 east and west channels.

    The fed Gov. dredged Norwalk river recently and had some “dirty” mud . They use designated disposal sites and capping techniques to contain the sediment, they also send it upland if it requires remediation.

    Metro north did this last winter under the RR bridge with several barge loads excavated, we pushed those spoils to Norwalk and the state trucked it upland for remediation. Interesting as the scow barges did scrape along the bottom in some areas just like Gaults delivery barges back in the day.

    The areas with poor testing numbers on the saugatuck are similar to all the rivers in our area so im sure its not new for them.

    I for one believe its our responsibility to clean it up (If it is dirty at all), so maybe a larger area will need remediation including the bridge areas.

  13. Priscilla Hawk

    My husband and I feel so fortunate to live for many years, in a Town where a great number of people are concerned about maintaining it’s charm and major highlights. We hope you prevail. And thank you, Dan, for keeping us all updated.

  14. John Hartwell’s video is awesome, in that it shows the height of the sailer’s mast as it goes under the raised bridge. I am not a boat owner, but wonder if it is physically possible for the owner of a boat like that to lower the mast during the transit, then raise it when clear? Britt Steele talks about the effect of the bridge on Westport’s “long term outlook.” Yet, has there ever been any scoping to suggest the economic impact on Westport that is contributed by the boating “community?”

    • How much did it cost and how many people on trains were delayed so the boat could go through? I took the Delta Queen up the Mississippi River and it’s smokestack was collapsible. If the mast can’t be lowered, have a marina south of the bridge.

      • I can’t speak to cost, but I can say that bridge openings are usually timed so that rail traffic isn’t affected.

  15. I’ve been boating on the Saugatuck River for nearly 30 years, since I was a kid. Its very sad how the River has been neglected, with dredging beyond overdue. I used to be docked in between the Cribari and RR bridges. My boating started to become dictated by tides – I could not safely navigate at dead low tide. Add to that manually propelled vessels (SUPs/Kayaks/Rowers) could not comprehend that, they got in the way of motor boats that could easily run aground, by operating in the channel (when they could easily operate outside of the channel).

    I ended up moving my boat closer to the Sound, keeping it at one of the Yacht clubs in Westport. The channel leading there is also slowly filling in. I tried for many years to spearhead and push USACE to carry out the dredging. Unfortunately, its a pipe dream without commercial traffic nor a major project such as bridge construction, requiring it. Pretty much no chance for the dredging, for recreational boaters, unless the town, and private individuals fund, and conduct the dredging.

    I havent reviewed any RR bridge replacement plans, but I certainly hope whatever Bridges end up on the Saugatuck River, are able to open for boats. I would love to see Westport put together a Harbor Management plan. Dredge the mooring field. Invite out of town boaters as transients. Dredge the River all of the way to downtown, allowing Boaters to take their boats/dinghies to restaurants (build a dinghy dock). I see a lot of upside/potential. I would even take it as far to suggest building out/extending the jetties from Compo and Cedar Point, to sort of enclose our harbor, and keep wave action out, helping to protect boats, and even water front properties. A significant commitment/expense, but I think worthwhile!

    I have offered to the Town to help build a Harbor Management Plan and even serve as a Harbormaster / Assistant Harbormaster (pretty much a volunteer effort). I know Westport’s harbor and river like I know the back of my hand, have visited dozens of Harbors, read many harbor management plans, and feel that I could offer valuable input, to transform Westport’s harbor, if there was interest, and funding.

    • Josh – what you describe is exactly where my mind goes when we think of the potential long term vitality of our town, if we choose to invest in the waterfront infrastructure and boating access. Thank you for volunteering to get involved!