Crashes, lightning and thousands of smiles

After 45 years, attendant retires from the Southport Swing Bridge
Wed, 07/18/2012 - 9:00am

Southport Island Bridge is losing a dedicated operator who, after 45 years, wants to spend more time with his wife, travel and help members of the community with odd jobs in his spare time.

In 1967 at age 17, Dwight Lewis started a part-time job working with his father on the Southport Swing Bridge. The bridge connects Southport to Boothbay Harbor and needed to be opened at all hours of the day for watercraft too tall to sail under it.

Lewis attended Hanson’s Barber College in Lewiston in 1968 and became a certified barber.

“I remember taking my test and using my brother Roy as a model. The instructor wanted me to show him a short cut, but Roy didn’t want his hair cut short. I talked him into it,” Lewis said.

Lewis worked for about nine months in Dick’s Barber Shop in Kittery before his father called him and offered him a full-time job working on the Southport Bridge.

“I liked cutting hair but I soon realized that every person that came into that shop with a cold or sick, I would get sick, too,” Lewis said.

Lewis didn’t have a driver’s license, so each day he took a bus to the Wiscasset bridge and banker Horace Lee picked him up and took him to the Southport Bridge.

From 1969 on, Lewis has opened and closed the Southport Bridge in the best and the worst of conditions. Currently the bridge is in need of repair.

“The worm gears are stripped and the wedges on either end won’t slide in all the way, which makes the bridge uneven and not safe. I have complained to the state,” Lewis said.

In 45 years he has seen many interesting and odd things on his watch, including lightning dancing back and forth on the top of the bridge.

“In 1983, lightning hit the ocean bottom just north of the bridge. It was like a beautiful blue fountain of youth shooting up into the air about 7 feet; I had never seen anything like it and haven’t seen it since,” Lewis said.

The Lewis family shared a duplex – since demolished – at the west end of the bridge with another bridge-tender's family. Between his father’s 42 years, Lewis' 45, his sister’s 10, and his two brothers combined 48 years; the Lewis family has tended the bridge for a total of 145 years.

“It has been a quiet winter job,” Lewis said. “I read ghost, boat and adventure stories. In the summer it’s a different story and over the years I’ve met a lot of people; now I’m meeting their children’s children. I fish off of the bridge. I catch a lot of mackerel. Sometimes I cook them on the Hibachi. I encourage people to fish off the bridge.”

Currently there are four tenders who work together, Harold Mansfield, Jeff Keyes, Lewis and his twin brother Duane Lewis. Dwight Lewis feels that they have all worked very well together helping each other out taking each others shifts in emergencies.

Bridge tenders rotate daily shifts, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m.

Spending the night at the bridge house on a cot monitoring a marine radio is a constant duty. Between the radio, loud rumbling and bridge wobbling with heavy traffic in all types of the weather, it is a wonder the tenders get rest at all.

“One of the weirdest things that I’ve seen was an elderly woman who, coming from the harbor side, drove onto the sidewalk; luckily no one was fishing then. When the police opened her door, she kept repeating, 'that was a beautiful boat.'”

Lewis said, “The cutest thing that I have seen was a female moose and her baby coming from the harbor side. They both tried to walk across the metal grating but the baby couldn’t do it and they turned back into the woods.”

“One night a deer walked across the sidewalk around 11:30. I was reading a book and I heard this sound that was loud. I looked and saw this large figure go past the window. I stayed inside and watched it go past to Southport and then out of sight.

“A pair of ospreys have built a nest on top of the bridge for the last two years. Before this it had never happened. Today, I watched the mother shield the baby with her wing from the sun,” Lewis said.

Forty-five years of coordinating boaters and automobile traffic; dealing with accidents when skippers keep moving after being advised they might hit the bridge; bikers not obeying the 'walk your bike across the bridge' sign and getting badly injured; bikers riding the sidewalk and running into the bridge house door as it opened; Lewis may not miss all of his responsibilities.

After Thursday, July 26, Lewis will be just another driver or boater who uses the bridge. He may still fish for mackerel there occasionally.

“I am looking forward to sitting with my wife in the evening and being with her more. We love to travel and go camping. We’d like to travel to Florida. In the fall I’m going to work with elderly shut-ins and help them out, cut hair, mow lawns, cut and stack wood.

“I’ll miss the smiles on everyone’s faces as they drive by; a lot of people wave. I will miss waving to the lobstermen in the morning,” Lewis said.

Lewis may not miss walking up and down the steep 15-foot ladder to the mechanism house 55 to 70 times a day during his busiest years, but he will surely be missed by all who have felt safe in his care for 45 years.