Since it was first built in 1927, the Bridge of Lions has mitigated traffic between scenic A1A and the Intracoastal Waterway. This task now falls to a team of bridge tenders from the Florida Department of Transportation. Working ‘round the clock, they hustle to get vehicle, pedestrian, and boat traffic through the busy intersection.
“Safety is the priority,” said Dean Metrie, contract coordinator for FDOT and former bridge tender. “District 2 has an incredible safety record and it’s all owed to our bridge tenders.”
In addition to the Bridge of Lions, District 2 oversees the bridges at Crescent Beach, Ortega Creek, and Main Street in Jacksonville. Tenders rotate through all four locations, each with its own obstacles. At the Bridge of Lions, for example, openings are scheduled on the hour and half-hour, but the U.S. Coast Guard mandates it has to open any time for government vessels, barges and tugs.
“During our peak season when the snowbirds are traveling in and out of Florida, we could see 700 to 800 openings a month,” said Dean. “For southbound boaters, our bridge tender is sometimes the first person they talk to in Florida, so we feel a little like ambassadors.”
Greeters, safety monitors, and traffic stewards – St. Augustine has a bridge tender team who can do it all.
At each shift change, team members go over logs and reports together, making sure that everything is operating as it should. For the bascule bridges at Crescent Beach, Oretega Creek and the Bridge of Lions, only one tender is needed per shift. Boaters will hail the tender when they need an opening and, as soon as it’s safe to do so, the tender will raise the twin rolling leafs of the span and lock them in place so the waiting vessel can pass through.
Once the spans are locked, the tenders can wander outside and watch the boats pass through. Sometimes, especially on the Bridge of Lions, they get to enjoy a little interaction with St. Augustine’s tourists.
“The crew on the Black Raven tells their guests that the bridge tender’s name is Jack,” said Dean. “So when they pass through they will look up and wave at the tender and yell ‘Hi, Jack!’ which of course makes the pirates react like the guests are trying to hijack the boat. It’s really cute.”
Up in Jacksonville on the St. Johns River, the Main Street Bridge requires a team of three tenders during each shift. Unlike the drawbridges, Main Street is a lift bridge where an entire 350 foot section of the road is raised straight up for boats to pass under. Two FDOT flagmen have to post at each end of the lift section to make sure the span is clear going up and coming down, while a third operates the controls. Constant communication keeps everyone safe and the bridge functioning like clockwork.
But sometimes extenuating circumstances lead to unusual days on the job for the bridge tenders. Dean was on duty at the Bridge of Lions on August 1, 2012, an otherwise normal Wednesday until a man sped through the bridge gates and flipped his truck in the middle of the road. The man, later found to be under the influence of drugs, climbed out of his upside down vehicle, stripped his clothes off and led police on a foot chase that ended at the Castillo de San Marcos. Despite the damages that the bridge sustained during the incident, FDOT had it back open and operating within three hours.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Dean said.
Even on a normal day, of course, the Bridge of Lions sees a lot of traffic and can sometimes be the cause of back-ups for motorists and boaters passing through St. Augustine. The bridge tenders make their best efforts to keep things moving, but with increasing vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic competing with a constant stream of sailboats, shrimp trawlers, barges, tugboats, pirate ships and government vessels, sometimes it’s difficult to balance the flow.
“It’s an interesting reality that we have this iconic drawbridge, built in 1927, that’s servicing a county which is still growing leaps and bounds with residents and tourists,” said Dean. “Invariably, that can lead to congestion. But we really try our best to operate as quickly and safely as we can to get the traffic through.”
St. Augustine certainly has its share of traffic woes and, for many residents, it’s easy to be annoyed that getting caught by the bridge is an almost daily part of life. But next time the bells ring out and the spans go up, don’t think of it as a nuisance, think of it as a reminder that the Bridge of Lions is part of St. Augustine’s living history. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings drove over that bridge. The HMS Bounty sailed through it. Millions of people have traveled from far flung places around the globe to walk across that bridge and take a few photos.
And through all of that, for the last 90 years, a dedicated crew of bridge tenders has been welcoming sailors, saluting drivers and keeping St. Augustine’s busiest intersection on the move.
Photography by Rob Futrell