Different kind of drawbridge

“He’s in the tiny shack just behind the even smaller one.”

A road worker told me where to find the South Bristol swing bridge operator. The 78-foot span was built in 1933 to provide land vehicles passage to Rutherford Island, Maine, over “The Gut,” a narrow slot of water between the open ocean and the enclosed haven used by area fishing boats.

Instead of lifting up to open, the way a “normal” drawbridge would work, a swing bridge pivots. Imagine holding your elbow at your side, hand pointing straight out. Now swing your lower arm side-to-side. The South Bristol swing bridge is powered with peanut oil. That, bridge operator Bill Wile told me, is so that if the hydraulics spring a leak, the water will not be polluted with petroleum product.

One of the tiny shacks, where an operator “lives” during his shift, is large enough for a bunk bed, toilet, television and VHF radio to receive calls from fishing boats headed to sea or returning. To control the bridge, the operator walks a few feet to the “even smaller” shack, with room only to stand at the controls.

Most of the boat traffic occurs between 4:30 and 8:30 each morning, when the lobstermen head out to harvest their traps.

“Some of ’em ahn’t too motivated,” Wile said of the boaters who transit The Gut at the later end of the morning period. Those who leave early are typically out for fresh lobster and other fish, rather than recreation.

At 4 p.m., James “Kip” Kelsey relieved Wile at the controls. Kelseys have operated the bridge since it was built, beginning with his grandfather.

“My grandfather paid me to run it,” Kelsey said. The “wage” for the then-12-year-old lad was $1 a day.

“Being the assigned operator was not quite as formal as today,” Kelsey quipped.

Kelsey’s father, and sometimes his uncle, also operated the bridge.

As people “from away” moved to the state’s coastal areas, traffic has increased both on land and, since many people with enough money to buy and build ocean-front homes also have the wherewithal to equip themselves with large boats, on the water. Kelsey said in 1966 the bridge was opened 2,600 times to allow boat passage.

“We get that now in just July and August,” he said.

The bridge was one of two swing bridges I captured during my recent visit to The Pine Tree State. Several miles from South Bristol, a human-powered bridge connected the mainland to Barter’s Island. That structure featured a hand crank, which the operator connected to a capstan through a hole in the bridge deck. Then, like sailors hoisting anchor in a movie featuring sailing ships, the operator walks around in a circle a dozen-and-a-half times to pivot the bridge out of the way.

Counting closing and opening the manually swung gates, the whole process blocks vehicular traffic about 20 minutes each time the bridge is opened.

Maine has more than 3,500 glacier-carved rock-bound miles of ocean-front property – about 5,500 miles counting the islands. By comparison, California – with its virtually straight coastline, is bordered by only 840 miles of ocean-front. Florida has about 1,300 miles.

The many tongues of rock illustrate the unofficial Maine motto: “You cahn’t get theah from heah.”

We stayed a week in a cottage only three miles from the South Bristol swing bridge. To get there by road was nearly 21 miles. Along the way, I met a man with a 1937 Packard, and a young woman whose grandparents had packed their belongings in a two-seat Honda sports car and moved from Chicago to the Maine coast.

It was a wonderful week, but it’s good to get back to South Mountain.

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