My Career from Above

I’ve been opening drawbridges since September of 2001, and I love it. I’ve opened 9 different bridges in three different states. I only know one other bridgetender with better statistics than that, so I’m kind of proud.

I’ve been going down memory lane quite a bit lately, so I decided to check out all my bridges on Google Maps. Ah, what memories.

Mainstreet from the sky
Main Street Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

My first bridge was Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s the only lift bridge I’ve operated to date, and it was kind of fun. It’s like being on the world’s biggest elevator. The tenderhouse was suspended about 25 feet above the roadway and it would rise with the bridge. It would also shake and sway when traffic was going over the bridge. I’ll never forget the sound of all our padlocks clanking on our lockers.

The down side to working on this bridge is that they required three bridgetenders per shift because the court ordered it after a drunken sailor drove his car into the drink when the bridge was open. So two bridgetenders spent a lot of time climbing up and down the ladder to act as flagmen at street level during openings. Quite the workout. This three person operation meant that you had to sit in a little room with two other people for 8 hours. That was fine when you got along, but when you didn’t, it was hell. Some of the drama and foolishness that happened up there could constitute a blog all its own.

Ortega from the sky
Ortega River Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

From there I went to the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville. I loved that little bridge. It was a one person operation, but the tenderhouse was smaller than your average walk in closet, so a lot of people couldn’t take it. You had to step outside to change your mind. But it suited me just fine. I liked that I was sitting on sidewalk level, so I got to know a lot of the people in the area. You sort of felt as though you were part of a community. The downside was the bathroom was across the street, which was no fun in the pouring rain or the bitter cold. (Yes, it does happen sometimes in North Florida, believe it or not.)

Eventually, though, the horrible pay and the worse benefits started to get to me, so I decided to go back to school for a third degree. Part of that time I still worked at Ortega. Then for a brief period I moved to South Florida to be closer to school. But even then, bridgetending was in my blood. My employer asked me if I’d like to go spend the summer working the Ben Sawyer drawbridge just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

Ben Sawyer from the Sky
Ben Sawyer Bridge, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

I jumped at the chance! I’d never been to Charleston, so when I wasn’t pulling a 12 hour shift on that bridge, I was exploring the city. What an amazing place! And what an amazing bridge! It’s the first time I operated a swing bridge, and the octagonal tenderhouse was right at the pivot, so when you did a bridge opening, it was such a smooth operation that it felt as if you were standing still, and the world was revolving around you. (Finally, some vindication in that belief!) I loved that bridge. I miss it. But it was only a temporary job, and alas, school was calling.

Once I got my third degree, it became painfully obvious that it was going to be as useless as the first two, so I came crawling back to Jacksonville with my tail between my legs and begged for my old job back. Fortunately I had left on good terms, and I was back working at Ortega River Bridge in no time. I also worked a few days a week at Sisters Creek Bridge.

SistersCreek from the Sky
Sisters Creek Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

This drawbridge no longer exists. It was replaced by a flyover, and that’s a shame because it was a nice quiet bridge. It spanned the Intracoastal Waterway way out in the middle of nowhere, north of Jacksonville, so mostly you opened for barges and the like. But I really got to focus on nature out there, and found a great deal of peace. The only negative thing about that bridge was the long commute.

The horrible pay was killing me, though, so when I heard of a job opening here in Seattle, Washington, for 3 times the pay and more benefits than I know what to do with, I jumped at the chance. Westward ho!

Fremont from the Sky
Fremont Bridge, Seattle, Washington

When you are a bridge operator for the City of Seattle, you get trained on all 5 of their bridges. So I was trained on the Fremont Bridge, which is the most stressful bridge I’ve ever worked on because pedestrians and bicyclists take scary risks, and it opens quite a bit.

Ballard from the sky
Ballard Bridge, Seattle, Washington

And I also trained on Ballard Bridge. I love that bridge because you get to watch the locks, the commute is short for me, and the view is a delight, but walking to your car at night can be scary.

Spokane Street Bridge, Seattle, Washington

And I trained on Spokane Street Bridge as well. That’s a very unique swing bridge, and the tenderhouse (here they call it the tower) is so high up you practically get a nosebleed. It’s the only bridge I’ve ever been in that has an elevator. It’s a complicated bridge to operate. I haven’t been there in so long that I’m not sure I’d remember how to do it.

But now, the two bridges I work most often are South Park Bridge—which is state of the art, but a very long commute…

SouthParkfrom the sky
South Park Bridge, Seattle, Washington

… and University Bridge, which I absolutely love. I love the neighborhood, the community, the view, the tower, and it’s busy enough to keep me interested, but not so busy that I get stressed out.

UNI From the Sky
University Bridge, Seattle, Washington

So the next time Google takes its satellite imagery, maybe I’ll pop my head out the window and wave. It’s pretty cool to look at all these places from the sky. I can imagine a little tiny me sitting inside, making the bridge safe for the traveling public. I have a lot of great memories.


Drawbridge Style

It has been my privilege to be one of the few bridgetenders on the planet to have had the opportunity to operate all three of the most common styles of drawbridges. So here is an extremely basic primer.

 Ortega RiverBridge

This is a bascule bridge. These come in the form of a double span, like the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida…

 Draw bridge

Or a single span like this one in Mystic, Connecticut.


Here’s why all those movies where you see cars jumping over opened bascule bridges are pure fiction. When the span opens, a hole appears at the base. The only way a car can get on an opening span is if it drives on when the bridge has only just started to open…


… or if the bridgetender isn’t paying attention and starts the lift when the vehicle is stopped on the span, as happened in Wisconsin.

 stupid drawbridge woman

Bascule bridges are responsible for the vast majority of drawbridge deaths and injuries. If you hear the warning signals and see the flashing lights and watch the gates lowering, you should have the sense to get out of the way, but you’d be amazed. It’s even more critical for pedestrians to be careful  nowadays because some of these bridges are operated remotely. If you want to read some very sad stories, just Google “Drawbridge” and “Dead” sometime.

 copy of Van Gogh picture and copy "Langlois Bridge" vangogh draw

This is probably the most famous bascule bridge, just outside of Arles, France, immortalized by Van Gogh.


The next style is the lift bridge, like the Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. These have counterweights in the towers that are attached to the span by cables. To open the bridge, brakes are released, allowing the counterweights to lower, which pulls up the span. Each one of the counterweights on Main Street weighs over a million pounds. Riding up on a lift bridge can be a heady experience, but it’s so big you don’t get that stomach lurching elevator feeling.

sunset bridge

You just get a spectacular view.

Scale Lane Bridge, England

Lastly, we have the swing bridge. These can pivot at the end, like the Scale Lane Bridge in Kingston upon Hull, England…

 swing bridge missouri, mississippi river

…or they can swivel on a central point like this bridge in Missouri which spans the Mississippi River. These bridges often have oval gears below deck level, which lift them up slightly above the fixed portion of the bridge before they turn.


Incidentally, it’s always a good idea to have very good locking mechanisms on bridges. We learned that the hard way after Hurricane Hugo hit the Ben Sawyer Bridge in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

There are a variety of creatively designed drawbridges out there, but these are the most common types. Of all three styles, the swing bridge is my favorite to operate. When on it, you don’t feel like you’re moving. It just looks like your surroundings are rotating around you. And since the world does revolve around me, that’s only fitting.

If you are as fascinated by drawbridges as I am, please join my Drawbridge Lovers Facebook page here.

South Carolina Sweetgrass Baskets

A couple of summers ago I had the distinct pleasure of spending six weeks in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina in order to operate the Ben Sawyer swing bridge. That’s a story for another day, But I will say I loved the area. I spent a lot of time exploring Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant itself is pleasant, indeed.

One of the things I loved most about the region is that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a sweetgrass basket stand. They lined highway 17. I love these baskets. This is the only place in the entire world where you can find them. Each one is a work of art, and the bittersweet thing about them is it’s a dying art.

West African slaves brought the tradition over here, and it’s been passed down to their descendants for the past 300 years. Kids today aren’t interested in such a boring job, plus the boom in land development means sweet grass isn’t as widely available as it used to be, so this type of basket weaving may very well die out with this generation, and that would be a shame.

Realizing these beautiful baskets are collector’s items and an investment in a dying culture, and that even the Smithsonian museum competes to obtain them, I had to get a few. These are mine, and I love them so much I’ve since hung them on my wall.

 001 002

Learn more about the interesting history of sweetgrass baskets here.