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Drawbridges on the Delaware

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002


Ask Donna Norcross about the time the guy tried to jump off the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and she’ll tell you something like this:

One day a car stopped in the middle of the bridge’s draw span and a man leaped out, ran to the railing, and climbed over, threatening to jump. Almost simultaneously, the driver leaped out and began pleading with his companion not to do it. A lively debate ensued as Norcross watched from the operator’s tower of the bridge’s draw span while awaiting the arrival of an inbound ship just coming into view downriver. For a few moments, she stood torn between the drama unfolding below her and the fact of the oncoming ship. Then she opened a window, leaned out, and hollered down, “Look, make up your mind. Jump or don’t jump, but get off the bridge because I’ve got a ship coming.”

Norcross, 37, is not hardhearted. It’s only that if you operate a drawbridge on a navigable waterway in the United States, the First Commandment is unambiguous: thou shalt open the bridge when the ship gets there. You don’t ask the ship to wait. You don’t wait for the ship to hit your bridge. You open the bridge, period. The First Commandment is a matter of federal law: the Regulation of Drawbridges Act, passed in 1894, gives waterborn traffic right of way over highway traffic. It’s also a matter of practicality: ships don’t have brakes; it can take a mile or more to neutralize the inertial force of thirty thousand tons or so of moving steel.

It’s just after midnight as Norcross tells the story of the Wannabee Jumper while awaiting the arrival of yet another ship, the Areti, presently docked upriver at Fairless Hills. Flying a Maltese flag and carrying a Filipino crew with Greek officers, Areti is still loading petrochemical machinery bound for Kuwait. Norcross and her coworkers know nothing about the ship except its name, nor do they particularly care. All they need to know is when the ship will reach their bridge.

The ship’s sailing time was to have been 6 p. m. , but that’s been changed to 10 p.m., then to midnight. Now the radio in the tower crackles as bridge dispatcher Dolores Leonard tells Norcross that Areti’s departure has been pushed back to 1 a.m. Ships sail when they are ready, not a moment before, and seldom a moment later. Consequently, bridge openings can occur at rush hour or the midnight hour, Ted Mack Amateur Hour or the darkest hour before dawn.

Not a penny of taxpayers’ money goes to the Burlington County Bridge Commission, which owns and maintains the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge—connecting the Tacony section of Northeast Philadelphia and Palmyra, New Jersey—along with the Burlington-Bristol Bridge farther upriver, a tollfree drawbridge over Rancoccas Creek, and a number of smaller bridges in Burlington County, New Jersey. The commission’s entire budget, including the salaries of all its employees, comes from its two toll bridges. Anything that reduces traffic over the bridge reduces revenue, and nothing discourages traffic like a bridge opening. Yet the bridge must open on demand for all commercial shipping and even for pleasure boats too tall for the bridge’s clearances (64 feet under the arch span, 54 feet under the adjacent draw span where the main channel flows).

“Tolls are our bread and butter,” says chief engineer Sasha Harding, “We’d be happy if the bridge never opened.” No chance of that, alas, so the trick is to get the bridge open and closed as quickly as safety allows. And that’s quicker than you’d think. Says Leonard, a jovial woman who’s worked for the bridge commission for 17 years, “I watch cars pull up to the toll plaza, see there’s an opening, and hang a U turn, which is really dumb. By the time they get to the Betsy Ross Bridge [the next bridge downriver, owned by the Delaware River Bridge Commission], we’re closed and traffic is moving again—and they pay $3 instead of $2.”

Up at Fairless Hills, Delaware River pilot George Macintire has come aboard Areti and is preparing to bring the ship downriver. A third generation river pilot apprenticed in 1956 and licensed in 1960, Macintire, 59, will have complete command of the ship. Only when Areti reaches the Atlantic Ocean will the ship’s captain take control.

Though Norcross has been an operator for seven years, and a tolltaker and backup operator for five years before that, she and Macintire have never met. Tonight, as always, they will be only disembodied voices identified to each other as “Tacony Bridge” and “Areti.” On the ship to shore radio, Norcross can hear the Burlington operator asking Areti if the ship has left the dock yet, but the ship is too far away for her to hear Areti’s reply. She turns on a TV and begins to watch a murder mystery already in progress. It’s 2 a.m.

Perched midriver, more than a thousand feet from either bank, the operator’s tower reminds one of a fortified turret guarding the only approach to some medieval castle. A windowless lower room contains an array of electrical panels. A steep iron stairway, almost a ladder, leads to the second floor, a room with windows 360 degrees around. This is the operator’s station, containing the main control panel, various radios, a TV, two chairs, and assorted log books and procedural manuals.

The tower, rising some 80 feet above the river and 15 feet above the roadway, is a lonely and beautiful retreat. At night, much of the lesser developed New Jersey riverbank is dark, but the Pennsylvania side is all lights and color from well north of the bridge all the way down to Center City where the blue peaks of Liberty Place, the moving lights of the PECO Building, and the bright red letters of the PSFS Building stand out vividly from the myriad lesser lights among which they are nestled.

On ship-to-shore radio, Norcross can hear Areti calling the Burlington operator to say that the ship is just approaching the turnpike bridge north of Bristol. It’s still more than an hour away from Tacony, but Norcross uses the police band to let Leonard and the three bridge commission patrol officers on duty know that the ship is moving.

At 2:35, the Burlington operator radios Norcross that Areti has cleared his bridge. She hails the ship and asks to be informed when Areti reaches Mud Island, about 20 minutes upriver from her. On Areti’s dimly lit bridge high above the ship’s main deck, Macintire feeds a steady stream of commands to the helmsman— “starboard 10, starboard 20, midships, port 10, midships, steady”—constantly fine tuning the ship’s course as it travels down the river.

Among the obstacles in the ship’s way are the three drawbridges: Burlington, Tacony, and the Delair railroad bridge. Burlington and Delair, however, are lift bridges—their draw spans are each a single piece that rises as if it were an elevator—and each offers ships an opening fully twice as wide as Tacony’s. Tacony is a bascule bridge, the bascule or draw span consisting of two leaves that open upward. Touch your index fingers together, palms flat and facing the floor, then swing your fingertips up toward the ceiling by pivoting your hands at the wrists. That’s how a bascule span opens. As Areti passes through the bridge, the ship will have a maximum clearance on either side of less than 85 feet. That may sound like a lot, but we’re not talking rack-and-pinion steering here; we’re talking thousands of tons of floating steel, and the passage is made trickier by the river’s current and a prevailing northwest wind, both of which can make major mischief.

“Tacony Bridge,” Macintire radios, “This is Areti. I’m passing Mud Island.” When Norcross hears this, she calls Leonard and asks for the backup operator.(There’s no margin for error in this business. If a ship ever does hit the bridge, you’re going to have bigtime damage, so there are backups for everything: backup operators, backup electrical systems, backup radios—there’s even a pair of giant hand cranks, so you can crank the bridge open manually if it comes to that.) Tonight’s backup operator is Cordell Washington, who’s working lane two of the toll plaza. Acting Sergeant Glenn Entwhistle drives him out to the tower while patrolman Mark Brennan heads over to the Pennsylvania side and parks.

In the tower, Norcross powers up the control panel, automatically triggering one ring from a loud bell, then adjusts the power source (the drawbridge runs on electricity that can be drawn from either Philadelphia Electric on the Pennsylvania side of the river or Public Service Electric & Gas on the New Jersey side). When Washington reaches the tower, Norcross radios, “Signal Eleven,” which tells the rest of the bridge staff to get into position for the opening, then fires one blast of a very loud siren. It’s 3:13 a.m.

Peering upriver, she can barely make out Areti just north of the old Northern Metals plant. The ship is not easy to see because the only lights it shows are its running lights—one green, one red—and two white mast lights that Washington describes as “60-watt bulbs,” exaggerating only minimally, but finally the darker black of the ship emerges from the shinier black of the river.

Aboard Areti, Macintire can see the bridge no better than Norcross can see the ship. The only lights on the bridge are some small red warning lights and the dull orange roadway streetlights, and these are utterly lost amid the brilliant array of lights that confront Macintire from his port quarter all the way around to his starboard beam. Macintire’s not really watching the bridge, however. He’s watching the various navigational lights on the river, and the small laptop computer he’s brought with him. The computer is hooked into something called the Differential Global Positioning System, which gives the ship’s position relative to the center of the river channel, accurate to within three feet.

As Areti draws closer, what Norcross sees are the two white mast lights lining up on each other until they appear as a single light. Norcross now knows the ship is heading straight for the bridge. “Signal 65,” she radios over the police band, then fires another blast of the siren. It is 3:18.

On that command, all of the officers turn on their revolving lights. For motorists, this is the first warning that the bridge is about to open. Brennan drives his Jeep Cherokee out onto the bridge, checking the roadway and pedestrian sidewalks to make sure they are clear. On the other side of the river, Officer Jason Bowen blocks traffic while Entwhistle checks the bridge. Washington leaves the tower to check the roadway and sidewalks on the draw span.

Only when Washington returns and Norcross hears from Brennan and Entwhistle that the bridge is clear of all traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, does she release the drawbridge’s brakes and turn the two brass handles that start the leaves up. From the tower, it appears at first as if Godzilla or King Kong is pushing the roadway up from below. Then the two leaves break apart and the Pennsylvania leaf seems to slide under the adjacent arch span, but the illusion is only momentary, quickly displaced by a feeling of vertigo as the roadway, sidewalk, handrails and streetlights travel inexorably from the horizontal to the nearly vertical.

Out on the roadway, Brennan is parked about 30 feet from the edge of the bascule span. From this vantage point, only the Pennsylvania leaf is visible. As it rises ever higher, paper and debris on the roadway begin to tumble down, giving the eerie impression of a Western ghost town, tumbleweed drifting on its only street, pushed along by a hardscrabble breeze. A glass bottle bounces down the steel grating of the bascule span’s road surface, banging loudly as it goes. Only then does one realize how quiet this has all been. There is only a barely perceptible electric hum. Though the leaves weigh two and a half million pounds each, they are so well balanced that it requires only four 60 horsepower motors to raise and lower them, two to each leaf.

Aboard Areti, Macintire can now see the bridge’s roadway lights and the warning lights marking the bridge piers. He can also see two red lights on the bascule span itself, the lights rising into the air and separating as the leaves go up. When the bridge is fully open, those two red lights will turn green, telling Macintire the bridge is ready.

In the tower, as the leaves reach the open position, the bell rings again. Norcross locks the brakes, then fires the siren twice, another signal to the ship that the bridge is fully open. The siren doesn’t sound all that loud from inside the tower, but out on the roadway where Brennan is parked, it sounds as if someone has installed an air raid siren in the back seat of his Cherokee, which is not too far off the mark. “We all have relatives who complain about that siren,” says Washington, grinning impishly.

Meanwhile, Macintire, intent upon guiding Areti safely through the narrow passage, doesn’t hear the siren, which is meant largely for him, and pays scant attention to the green lights. He’s focused on his various navigational aids, mentally calculating the effect of tonight’s tide, current, and wind conditions, and calling constant course corrections to the helmsman. The ship’s radio crackles: “Areti, this is Tacony-Palmyra. The bridge is fully open.”

“Areti,” Macintire replies, “Roger, Tacony, thank you very much.” He has had Areti traveling at slow ahead, but once the bridge is open, he increases speed to half ahead. “It’s safer to get through there as quickly as possible,” he says, explaining that faster speed reduces the impact of wind and currents, provides better steering control, and minimizes the risk of power failure, either of the ship or the bridge, in mid-passage. As the ship bears down on the bridge, it seems to glide through the dark water in phantom-like silence, though if Brennan listens carefully, he can hear the low whine of the ship’s deisel engines and the soft swish of the prop wash.

Macintire has positioned Areti a little toward the New Jersey bascule pier as he approaches the bridge because the current wants to push the ship toward Pennsylvania. As Areti slides through the narrow opening, Norcross can look down on the ship’s main deck, which is covered with cargo containers and various large irregularly shaped objects impossible to identify in the poor light and the few seconds it takes the ship to glide by.

If Norcross leaned out of the window nearest to the channel and Macintire walked out onto Areti’s starboard bridge wing, they could have a conversation almost without raising their voices, but each has already turned to the next task at hand. As Norcross releases the brakes and starts the leaves back down, she can hear Areti calling the First Coast, a tugboat pushing a barge downstream; Areti is fast closing on the tug and barge, and Macintire needs to know to which side of the channel the tug will move as the ship overtakes it.

As Areti rapidly vanishes amid the lights of Philadelphia, Norcross stops the Pennsylvania leaf about five degrees from horizontal, then gently brings the New Jersey leaf down until they meet: “working the handles,” she calls it. Once the leaves are joined, she applies full power to the New Jersey leaf, driving both leaves down until they are fully seated. You can hear a deep ca-thunk as the leaves lock into place.

As soon as she sees the deck plates go flush to the sidewalk, she sets the brakes again, then turns on the overhead lane lights, a visual signal to Brennan that the bridge is ready for traffic. “4820 to all cars,” says Brennan, using his radio call sign, “The red lights are on. Let ‘em roll.” It’s 3:31 a.m. Traffic on the bridge has been halted for less than 13 minutes. Norcross shuts down the control panel, then turns to her log books.

But what about that guy who was threatening to jump? “I didn’t handle it very well,” Norcross says sheepishly. Maybe not, but the jumper hesitated long enough for his companion to grab him and pull him back over the railing. Then both men got in the car and sped away. And the bridge was open when the ship arrived.


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