Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The ups and downs of Victoria's little Blue Bridge

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 8, 2009


The Johnson Street Bridge needs to be repaired or replaced. Here's hoping the city decides to go with the chewing-gum and duct-tape solution.

The Blue Bridge, as it is known, is well into retirement age at 85, but shows no sign of quitting. It still works. But not any more than it has to.

As a symbol for the city, this lift bridge is hard to beat. Bridge goes up, bridge goes down. Bridge mostly doesn't move at all.

Each workday, about 30,000 vehicles cross the span linking downtown to the Vic West neighbourhood and Esquimalt and the naval base beyond. Others cross on bicycles, three-wheel scooters, four-wheel skateboards, and the odd unicycle. Even more make the short journey on foot.

Every morning, the Malahat pulls out from a terminal at the northeast end of the bridge for the 225-kilometre journey to Courtenay, returning in time for supper. Yellow bumpers at Store Street are the end of the line for what had been the historical Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

You can tell what the bridge means to the local citizenry by how we use it as a reference point.

We have a Blue Bridge Cabinetry business, a Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre company, a song titled Old Blue Bridge by The Bills. (It's bluegrass, natch.) When a local writers group released an anthology, the book was titled Beyond the Blue Bridge.

Last year, a brewpub released Blue Bridge Double IPA. "Bridges link people, they bring them together," Spinnakers publican Paul Hadfield said in a release at the time, "and that's exactly what the Johnson Street or Blue Bridge does here in Victoria."

Three years ago, protesters dressed as the Hulk, Batman and Spider-Man scaled it to unfurl banners demanding better custody arrangements for divorced fathers. A decade ago, the bridge provided a backdrop for the Alicia Silverstone comedy vehicle Excess Baggage.

The bridge is popular with tourists, whose portraits can be found on Flickr and other websites. One of those features a rusty door painted a garish blue.

The door opens into a shack on the southwest end of the bridge. This is the office of Gary Mullins, 57, whose job title with the city is senior bridge operator.

For the past 13 years, he has been guide and gatekeeper. The bridge is closed to marine use during the morning and evening rush hour, but otherwise can be lifted 20 hours a day, seven days a week, 362 days a year.

Mr. Mullins can be reached at VAH20 on Channel 12 of the marine radio.

"I can put a tug and barge through in five minutes," he says proudly. "One long streetlight."

The bridge-keeper maintains a logbook in which is recorded the time of each bridge lift and the name of each vessel. Four cameras, including one underneath the decking, aid in keeping a lookout.

"We can't have an accident on the bridge," he insists, "because it'll be a bad one."

Not that there haven't been close calls. A sailboat once tried to piggyback on another ship's lift, but neglected to check in. The bridge was being lowered until a television crew, on hand for a story, shouted a warning. The operator had a vision of the mast piercing the decking like an olive on a stick in a martini.

Another time, a tug neglected to pull in a retractable mast and got briefly hung up at the edge of the bridge. While the tug stopped, the trailing barge continued, bumping up against the tug's rear until the span was cleared.

The bridge opened in 1924 at a cost of $918,000. The steel superstructure was built in Walkerville, Ont. The original wooden deck was replaced by an open-grid steel deck in the mid-1960s, providing a less slippery surface as well as one in which water was not absorbed. The bridge had difficulty lifting in winter because of the added weight of rainwater.

An ingenious design allows the railway section and the highway section to be lifted by hollow concrete counterweights. The two large racks are driven by a pair of 75-horsepower electric motors.

Only a handful of similar bascule bridges remain in Canada, including one on Cherry Street in Toronto and another known as the Green Monster in Kingston. The Jackknife Bascule Bridge across the Kaministiquia River at Thunder Bay was demolished five years ago.

The Blue Bridge remains a landmark. The city describes its colour as Juan de Fuca blue, though the hue is less pacific than industrial.

Not everyone is impressed by the bridge, which might be replaced in the years to come. The Frommer's tourist guide describes it as a "misshapen lump of steel and concrete," noting that it is "something designer Joseph Strauss would likely wish forgotten."

Mr. Strauss died in 1938, a year after the opening of his greatest work. The bronze plaque adorning his crypt in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., depicts the Golden Gate. No mention of Victoria's little Blue Bridge.

Mr. Mullins once made a pilgrimage to San Francisco to check out that other of Strauss's handiwork. He walked across the magnificent span as a battleship passed beneath.

"Looked like a toy," he said.

He was asked about the largest vessel to navigate the Blue Bridge.

The ferry boat Queen of Saanich once came through on the way to a shipyard for repairs.

"That was a tight fit," Mr. Mullins said. "The clearance was maybe 10 inches on either side. He went dead slow."

1 comment:

Joyce Sandilands said...

Interesting post, Tom. Unfortunately I was away on Sept. 20th so couldn't take part in the Kiss Your Bridge festivities.
You know, our favourite bridge has not always been blue. Being a native Victorian, If my memory serves me correctly, it was black in the 50s and into the 60s then it was painted a horrid rust colour. I believe it was rust colour that was painted blue. I wonder if anyone (in Gary Mullins' diary no doubt) would know the dates it was painted.Another intereting memory is that my uncle, Stan Joyce, had Gary's job in the late 1940s. I would love more info on these dates for my family history.
I think I need to stop by and visit Gary one day! Thanks for the head's up.

Joyce Sandilands, a local author