Next fall, state officials plan to replace the little hand-operated steel bridge linking Hodgdon Island to Barters Island.
The 86-year-old structure, called a pony truss swing bridge, carries traffic over Back River.
State officials want to modernize it, you know — use a computer to bring it into the 21st century.
The only other hand-operated bridge in Maine carries State Park Road over the Songo lock in Naples, state officials say.
Today, the venerable Boothbay structure is operated by a bridge tender, a smiling woman named Terry Freese. On most days, she opens it five or six times a day to allow fishermen and other boaters access to the Sheepscot River without taking the long way around Barters Island. During the summer boating season, she opens it 10 or 11 times a day.
To open it, she stops traffic, walks onto the bridge and pulls out traffic barriers on both ends of the 110-foot-long structure. Then she walks to the middle, bends over and grabs a long steel rod. She puts one end of the rod — it resembles a giant Allen Wrench — into a slot on the bridge decking.
Then she grabs the rod and starts to walk — around and around and around. As she walks, elderly gears clatter and bang as the massive steel structure slowly opens.
“Sometimes, when the wind is just right, I just have to get her started and she opens by herself,” said Freese.
After the fisherman and the tender exchange greetings, and have a quick chat about the weather, or fishing, or their kids, the lobster boat moves through the 20-foot-wide channel, and heads towards the Sheepscot.
The smiling bridge tender usually carries a walkie talkie radio to monitor the fishing community’s traffic because she tries to help the fishermen.
“If they need me, I will stay a little bit later, or come in early,”she said. “I try to help my guys.”
When one of “her guys” passes through the narrow opening, she walks back on to the deck, grabs the big steel crank and starts to walk the other way. After she walks a few laps around and around, the bridge clanks back in place and she locks her up. Then she walks to one side and shoves the traffic barrier to the side. Sometimes, local motorists will give her a hand and open the other barrier for her.
The last act in this mini drama is when she hustles off the bridge dodging the drivers who are anxious to cross. Dodging tourists can be a distraction.
It is a simple process. One that works well. One that provides summer tourists with a photo and a chance for them to tell their grandkids — see, you can open and close the bridge without electric power or a motor that pollutes the air. If there is such a thing as an ecological steel swing bridge, this is one.
But, say Maine Transportation officials, it is time for the old clanking bridge to go. “It definitely needs replacement,” said Leanne Timberlake, the MDOT’s project manager.
Boothbay Town Manager Dan Bryer agreed with her. “It certainly is needed.”
As he took a break from answering calls from residents inquiring about traffic delays due to construction of the “roundabout,” Bryer said MDOT officials have been very transparent and accommodating about the bridge. They have hosted public meetings and answered questions about the project.
Current MDOT schedules call for the estimated $8.1 million project to begin next fall. It is a state project. No local funds are needed.
Plans call for a bypass to be constructed next to the old bridge to allow traffic to pass during the replacement.
“We plan to widen it and make it match the approaches,” said Timberlake.
And, the new bridge will be automated with a hand-operated back up system. Once again, a computer will be installed to replace a human being.
The idea of replacing the elderly bridge is a bit sad for the bridge tender. “I love this job. I just love to go out and open the bridge,” said Freese admitting she does not like, greasing the gears and levers.
“I usually call my husband, George, who helps tend the Southport Bridge, to do that,” she says with a smile. The couple came to Maine after he retired from the Coast Guard. They, and their two children, live in Newcastle.
“I know I am from away and will never be a Mainer. But, they make me feel like I belong. I know the old bridge is rusting, I do. But, why can’t we leave it alone. It works.”