Video: Southport

Bridge tenders new and old

Tue, 11/27/2012 - 7:30pm

The Southport bridge and its friendly-faced operators have guided traffic through the green gates of Townsend Gut for 45 years. Since Jeff Keyes and Dwight Lewis recently retired, the Maine Department of Transportation has hired two new full-time workers to join Duane Lewis on the 73-year-old swing bridge.    

The Lewises and Keyes share a combined 115 years of bridge experience. The torch was recently passed on to George Freese of Round Pond and David Blake of Richmond.

The newcomers are learning the ropes under the watchful eye of Duane Lewis, who is often found between training sessions spinning tales that only a seasoned bridge keeper could tell. In his 44 years on the job, Duane Lewis has seen and heard just about everything under the Southport sun, from smashed boat hulls marooned on a ledge, to cars careening through the gates into “the drink.” At one point during his tenure, Lewis said he was involved in solving one of the greatest schooner heists in the last 25 years.

Based on Lewis’ stories, trainees Freese and Blake said they are excited to be part of the team, but understand there will be dangers that come along with the job.

On November 19, cars whizzed by a few feet from the chair where I was interviewing Freese in the bridge keeper's hut. After he learned how to control and maintian the swing bridge, Freese said a lot of timing goes into maneuvering the apparatus smoothly.

Powered by a series of switches, levers and a foot pedal, the Southport bridge is considered “old school” in its design, having undergone only one upgrade since 1939.

Freese said being the local tender is considered an integral part of the town. After nearly two months learning the local landscape, Freese said he was able to pick out a couple fishing boats from afar.

“Come in Southport bridge,” the marine radio blared.

Duane Lewis sat nearby. Though recovering from a recent knee surgery, he was quick to his feet. He looked out the north window at an approaching vessel.

“Yup, that's John Hodgdon,” he said, without hesitation.

“That's amazing,” Freese said, noting Duane Lewis' dead-on identification from more than a quarter mile away.  

Getting to know the boats and their captains is one of the main reasons Lewis enjoys his job so much, especially since each vessel that passes through during an opening is dutifully logged with the date and time. The records are submitted to MDOT.

There are three 8-hour shifts, which alternate on a weekly basis. The two-day shifts run from 8 a.m. to midnight. The graveyard shift creeps back around to 8 a.m.  “You find that most of the traffic is from midnight to (2:30 a.m.),” Lewis said. “The traffic never really stops. It just keeps going”

Blake said he has worked around boats and Maine waterways most of his life. He said he still hasn't gotten used to the night shift, but working alone is tolerable. 

“When it comes to the water, you never know what's coming,” Blake said. “You've got to be ready for whatever, and it's probably going to be that 'whatever' once in a while.”

Blake said so far the job has been good. “I'm close to enough to home, and you can't beat the view.”

One might assume after 45 years on duty, a bridge keeper grows tired of the same sights and sounds. But not Duane Lewis. The best part about the job is knowing the people, the vessels, and all the people that come to fish off the bridge, he said. “So many people have come through on boats. Nice people. And I probably know them all from the name of their boat.”

Duane Lewis and the mystery of the schooner Blackhawk

Drop by to see Duane Lewis in the Southport bridge keepers' hut. You'll either leave laughing or handcuffed.

About 25 years ago when Duane and Dwight Lewis' father Norman was running the bridge, a schooner by the name of Blackhawk was stolen from its home port in Rhode Island in the middle of the night.

Local law enforcement, Marine Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard were in a state of panic as they raced up and down the Northeastern seaboard investigating the stolen ship. Authorities paid a visit to the Lewis household in Southport to see whether any suspicious activity had been reported. A Coast Guard official told Lewis there was absolutely no way anyone would be able to find out who committed the crime.

Then young Duane Lewis piped up, “I want you to give me one week and I will find out where the schooner Blackhawk is.” The authorities left the house skeptical.

Less than a week later, two women in a little blue Studebaker drove up to Boothbay to pay a visit to “the bridge keeper with the big mouth.”

After the pair found Duane Lewis, one of them asked if he was the one who said he would find out who stole the schooner.

“Yes ma'am,” Duane Lewis said.

“Well, you got a big mouth, and you're talking too much,” she said. “However, we know who stole the schooner. It was our boyfriends, and they sunk it in the Connecticut River.” The driver revved her engine and sped off. But unfortunately for them, Lewis had taken down the car's license plate number.

A call to the local police led to their arrest, and two days later the schooner Blackhawk was found at the bottom of the Connecticut River.

After extensive repair, the refurbished Blackhawk sailed south down the Kennebec River. She had been outfitted with a new engine in Bath.  

In Southport, a call came in: “Southport bridge, this is the schooner Blackhawk. Do you read us, Southport bridge?”

Lewis watched as the ship's tall mast passed by the control tower. The skipper yelled up, “Are you the one who helped us find our boat?” Lewis nodded. The skipper thanked Lewis and said they had just sold the vessel and were headed to California, but they wanted to sail through Maine one last time to pay a visit to the Southport bridge keeper.

“God bless you,” Lewis said, and he wished them a safe passage.