By Kristin Schultz
REXFORD — When time marches on, it often leaves people’s memories in the dust.
Not so for Dick Horstman. Time has seen three different bridges span the Mohawk River between Niskayuna and Clifton Park. Horstman can recall crossing the first one in his grandfather’s horse-drawn buggy.
“In the winter, we’d get hay from over on Rosendale Road,” said Horstman, 89, a journey that began from home in Jonesville. “It would take a big half day.”
Horstman, his father and grandfather drove the team of two horses across the first bridge at Rexford, the stretch of old Erie Canal aqueduct that connected Rexford to Niskayuna. The supporting structure for the aqueduct can still be seen just to the east of the two current bridges.
Once they crossed the aqueduct to the Niskayuna side, the horses pulled the wagon along a road that passed through a tunnel under the old railroad bridge. (That bridge now serves bicyclists, joggers and walkers as part of the Mohawk Hudson Hike-Hike Trail. The tunnel, made from hewn stone and concrete still stands to the west of the current underpass, just past the commuter parking lot across from The Boat House.)
The old road sloped up the hill to the present-day path of Balltown Road. In addition to working on locomotive engines, Horstman’s father also worked the grounds for the Ruffner family in Niskayuna, so the Horstmans traveled to that property off Rosendale Road. They loaded the hay onto the wagon and headed back down the hill and through the tunnel.
“It’s been 80 years ago,” said Horstman. “But [the hill] seemed a lot steeper then.”
On the return trip, Horstman’s grandfather would stop the horses and wagon at the top of the hill and attach a kind of wheel lock that would let the loaded wagon slide down the hill rather than roll and potentially roll over the horses.
“He told me to get off the wagon and walk, too,” said Horstman. “That was in case the wagon got out of control.”
The Horstman men would make the trip between five and seven times per winter, scheduling their trips for when the weather was favorable.
A lot of time and a lot of life has passed since 6-year old Dick Horstman crossed the first Rexford Bridge in a wagon. He went on to join the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II. He met his wife, Anna, at the Klamsteam Tavern. When she finally agreed to give him her phone number, they dated, got married and had four children. Anna died on Dec. 7, 2014.
Dick worked in heavy construction, driving pilings during construction of the Adirondack Northway. He worked on grain boats on the New York State Barge Canal following World War II.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Dick said. “[At the time] I first crossed the Rexford Bridge, we had no electricity at home, no phone and we barely had a road.”
For the most part, he said the changes have been positive. He likes the newest Rexford Bridge.
“It’s wonderful, gorgeous,” he said. Horstman went on to say that he likes that the new bridge doesn’t have a superstructure or concrete barriers to block the view of the river.
The day we met for an interview, Horstman’s son John drove his dad across the new bridge in a pickup truck. John himself remembers crossing the old bridge in the family sedan in 1964.
“I was just a little kid crossing the bridge with a horse and wagon,” Dick Horstman said. “I’ve lived through three bridges. Not many people can say that.”