Jay and the Bridge: Part One
by Jay Craig
Everybody loves the Ballard Bridge. It was built as part of the effort to connect Lake Union and lake Washington to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Without the Ship Canal, Seattle would not be the city it is. Being a fresh water port allowed us to become the Port of Alaska, with over 50% of the seafood consumed in the United States passing through here. The Ballard Locks and the Ship Canal Bridges are daily reminders of one of the greatest engineering projects in US history.
And the view from the control tower of the Ballard Bridge on a sunny morning or when the sun is setting behind the Olympics is beautiful.
I have quite a bit of experience with bridges because I was a Ride the Ducks of Seattle Captain for several years before and again after the accident on the Aurora Bridge. While driving there I became friends with another Duck Captain who came in just for the summer season…because it was a fun job. His real job was Lead Bridge Tender for the City of Seattle. He made that job sound fun too, so I applied.
They start you out part-time and you get all the worst shifts, of course. They bounce you back and forth lat the last minute between the Ballard, Fremont and University bridges on the canal, and the Spokane Street and South Park bridges.
The South Park Bridge is the newest, shiniest bridge and is hardly scary at all to operate. It is also the least opened by far and you can go three or four shifts without a single opening.
The Spokane Street Bridge is the largest, and slowest, concrete swing bridge in the world and when you’re up there alone (you are always alone as a Seattle bridge tender) at two o’clock in the morning and a container ship is barreling down on you and some drunk pedestrian won’t get off the bridge and the container ship is coming really fast (and those things don’t have brakes and one of the light indicators on the control panel isn’t on and you don’t know if it’s just the bulb or if the pump isn’t working) and it’s likely there’s gonna be an allision (a collision with a fixed object, we learned that in training), it can be horrifying.
In many ways, a job as a bridge operator is a day of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
But not when working the Ballard and Fremont bridges. The Fremont Bridge is the busiest drawbridge in North America. My very first day on my own was the Opening Day of boating season and I opened it at least twenty times in eight hours. I learned immediately that it’s all about timing. There’s a sailboat waiting to go from the East and he’s been sitting there for three minutes but you finished an opening five minutes earlier, and you can’t let either cars or boats wait more than ten minutes. But there’s also a large yacht coming from the West that may or may not need an opening and you just got a call on the radio that the Island Chief is coming with a gravel barge and will need an opening in about ten minutes and those guys are goddamn cowboys who just want to get home and go out drinking beer and line dancing or whatever it is they do, but once you ask them to please take a slow bell and they tell you “No problem, buddy!”, you can relax a little and all the captains and boaters thank you as they pass. Unlike the automobiles, bikers and pedestrians. They’re the worst.
When you train to be a bridge tender you have to do an opening of each of the five drawbridges ten times each, and they only give you three days each to do it. So if you’re ever stopped by the bridge and get out to see what’s going through and there’s nothing there, that’s just a new trainee. Not need to start yelling and flipping off the people in the tower. They’re probably just laughing at you, anyway.
But the Ballard Bridge was my favorite. I’m not really a morning person but I always looked forward to being up on the Ballard Bridge by 6:45 am so I could have my tea and watch the day begin.
I loved working that bridge and if they could have put me up there full-time I’d still be doing it. Instead, it’s another friend and former Duck Captain, driving as Captain Barb E. Doll.