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.
This is a bascule bridge. These come in the form of a double span, like the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida…
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.
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.
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.
You just get a spectacular view.
Lastly, we have the swing bridge. These can pivot at the end, like the Scale Lane Bridge in Kingston upon Hull, England…
…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.