Spanning 100 YearsMay 01, 2021 01:43PM ● By Mike Cutillo
America is flush with famous bridges. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, Lake Pontchartrain Causeway leading into New Orleans, even a former London Bridge, which used to cross the Thames in England and has been deconstructed and rebuilt over Lake Havasu, Arizona.
Other iconic spans are associated with certain cities: Think the Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco), the Brooklyn Bridge (obvious), the Rainbow Bridge (Niagara Falls, both U.S. and Canadian sides). The Edmund Pettus Bridge? Selma, Alabama, of course.
New York State’s Southern Tier is not without its own epochal overpass. The Centerway Bridge is one of five bridges and/or roadways that traverse the Chemung River in Corning. And though to cross it these days one needs only two legs and not four wheels—or more—it is as historic a part of this quaint Steuben County city of 11,000 residents as its glassworks and its beloved downtown Gaffer District.
In fact, to many, it is much more than just a bridge. “It’s a jewel, there’s no doubt about that,” says Sandie Wilson, longtime newspaper reporter for the local Corning Leader and current director of administration and operations for the Gaffer District. “It’s a treasure.”
That jewel, now a pedestrian family-friendly walkway, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Built in 1921 to relieve the stress of increased automobile and streetcar traffic on the nearby Bridge Street Bridge, the Centerway Bridge has had more lives than your favorite feline, surviving, among other potential disasters, major deterioration because of ever-increasing traffic and flat-out calls for demolition. It even was the subject of a “Save Our Bridge” campaign. There have been severe bouts with wicked weather—including the once-in-a-lifetime, cataclysmic flood of 1972, AKA Hurricane Agnes.
“When you think about the flood of ’72, it was catastrophic in so many ways,” says Coleen Fabrizi, the Gaffer District’s executive director since 2008. “First of all with the loss of lives, but then what it did to downtown... and that bridge withstood the flood. As we continued with restoration and revitalization efforts throughout the city following the flood, the bridge was there. I think for me, because that bridge stood in the very river that attacked the city, so to speak, it was saying, ‘Not my city.’ It still is there as a beacon of hope, I think in that way.”
Jewel. Treasure. Beacon. Add “unique” to the list of descriptors for the Centerway Bridge. The 752-foot concrete span consists of seven arches, each of which is about ninety-two feet long. It is said to be one of the few examples of a filled spandrel bridge still in existence, spandrel being a feature popular in medieval architecture and referencing the area where arches adjoin; filled because its hollows were packed with earth.
Designed by Abraham Burton Cohen, a pioneering concrete bridge engineer from New York City, the Centerway became obsolete for twentieth century traffic after six decades and was scheduled for demolition in 1980. The city’s residents, however, did not want to lose a beloved piece of their history. Led by native daughter Mary Lu Walker, a folk singer and Steuben County Hall of Famer, hundreds of Corningites staged a sit-in on the bridge.
“The community rallied around saving the bridge,” says Sandie. “They went to the bridge and protested on it, and sang songs, had a little sit-in—it was that kind of time period.”
The grassroots efforts worked, and, after major renovations, the Centerway reopened in 1986 for pedestrians, bicyclists, and the double-decker buses that had been brought in from England to carry tourists to and from the Corning Museum of Glass and the historic downtown district. A maze was also painted on the bridge that became popular with families but was just a precursor to what would be included when another round of renovations—$5.2 million worth—were completed in 2012-13. Now strictly for walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and cyclists, the bridge has green spaces and flower gardens, decorative glass pavers, historical placards, even concrete pads with the bronzed footprints of animals that are native to the region. The maze was preserved, and sprinkler and drainage systems were put in place to keep the foliage and lawns healthy.
“It was basically turned into a park on a bridge,” Sandie says with a laugh.
That renovation also led to another label for the veritable bridge: Award winner. In 2014 it was named the American Public Works Association Historic Restoration & Preservation Project of the Year. It also won the 2013 Bridge Award by the Western New York Chapter of the Association for Bridge Construction & Design, and the Award of Merit from the International Concrete Repair Institute in the Historic Preservation category.
All those accolades—and a centennial anniversary—certainly call for some kind of celebration. COVID-19 has made it a bit difficult to plan anything, but the same community that has rallied in the past to save the bridge will gather for a celebration ceremony May 25, 6 p.m. at Riverfront Park Pavilion, at the bridge’s south entrance.
In the meantime, the cherished landmark remains a must-see on a visit to the Crystal City, a bridge—if you will—between Corning’s past, present, and future.
“When I became a part of the downtown business community, I noticed a couple of things right off, one of which was the Centerway Bridge,” Coleen recalls. “It was obvious that that particular structure was so much more than a bridge. It was a symbol of the connectivity of the entire downtown and all of the people who used that bridge as a touchpoint, whether it was sweethearts meeting there for a surprise proposal and then journeying back year after year to celebrate an anniversary or people taking their kids there because, you know, any bridge is an adventure to a child.
“I’m just in awe of it, and I’m very proud of our city and our corporate partners and everyone who believed in saving this bridge. I applaud that in a society that sometimes gives up too soon on such things.”