Louis Burrows was on the job yesterday, monitoring the ship-to-shore telephone and two-way radio, ready to brave the chill winds above the Anacostia River and the outrage of motorists to open the South Capitol Street Bridge to ship traffic.
No ships passed that were tall enough to require opening the bridge. There hasn't been one since July. None is expected ever again. But the D.C. Department of Transportation, at an annual cost of more than $130,000, keeps Burrows and other Bridge tenders on duty in the concrete control room beneath the bridge just in case.
"You get to read a lot," said Burrows. "Sometimes you read so much it make your eyes hurt." What the bridge tenders cannot do while waiting for ships that never come, he said, is fall asleep, because "you never know."
The bridge is a swing span that must be opened to river traffic on demand, an operation that takes two men. It cost the District more than $130,000 a year to keep the control room staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and keep the giant drivewheels functioning. But logbooks kept by the tenders, who scan the Anacostia's murky waters from the blockhouse beneath the span, show that the last opening occurred July 31. At the end of December, the District asked the U.S. Coast Guard for permission to cease operating the swing span in an attempt to save money.
"There are men down there all day waiting for boats that never come," said James E. Clark III, acting director of the Transportation Department. "Why have an active drawbridge when there is no river traffic?"
Clark said that even before July only 60 ships a year were taller than the span's 40-foot clearance and demanded opening of the bridge. Last summer, he said, a training school at the Washington Navy Yard that generated most of that traffic moved to Florida, virtually eliminating the need to open the bridge.
The bridge, officially known as the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, was opened in 1950. At the time, several bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia rivers were opened regularly for navigation, but all have since been permanently closed except South Capitol and the Woodrow Wilson bridge that carries the Capital Beltway from Prince George's County to Alexandria. That bridge, Clark said, is opened an average of once a day, and there is no question of closing it.
Conducting a tour of the South Capitol span yesterday, Harold McCutcheon, supervisor of the city's bridge tenders, said that even without openings, the work there is hazardous and demanding. "It ain't all just sitting down," he said.
"We have to grease and oil the machinery, check traffic on the bridge, watch for disabled cars, clear up the debris," he said. "We ought to get hazardous duty pay, but we don't." He said that a passing motorist would "think it's nice duty, just looking out at the scenery, but it's not. One mistake and you take a cold swim."
Burrows and the other bridge teners work in a circular bunker beneath the center of the bridge that includes a toilet, a heater, an air conditioner, lockers, a gas-cooking range and radios. The actual controls for opening the bridge are in a small tower atop the span, but unless there is a demand for an opening, McCutcheon and Burrows said, the tenders no longer go there because motorists periodically shoot at it. "It got a little hairy up there," McCutcheon said.
With the windows closed in the blockhouse, the constant clanking and humming of cars on the steel roadway above are almost inaudible, but Burrows said he knows when something is wrong. "It's like the birds in one of those movies about the jungle," he said. "You know something's up when you realize they're suddenly quite."