Tending The Bridge
I WAS LUCKY. THE MOMENT I DROVE UP TO LAKE Okeechobee to cross over to Torry Island the bridge shut in front of me, blocking my way. A heavyset man in a wide-brimmed floppy straw hat ambled onto it and pulled down a gate at each end. Then he walked to the middle of the bridge, picked up a 10-foot-long pole, stuck it into a hole in the roadway, and turned it. Pretty soon the whole 140-foot-long steel span was rotating under him like a railway turntable, until it had swung ninety degrees. A cabin cruiser passed by it, and the people on board and the man in the floppy hat waved at each other. After the boat was gone, the man walked in circles, pushing the pole in the opposite direction, until the bridge faced across the canal again. Then he raised the gates. I was lucky because even in high season—which this was, being winter, when tourists and winterers are in their boats—the bridge needs to turn only about a hundred times a month. Days can go by without any canal traffic. “We’re most likely to get traffic in the morning,” Charles Corbin had told me when I phoned to plan my visit. I had arrived at 9:10 A.M. expecting to wait around for hours and still maybe leave disappointed.
After Charles raised the gates, I drove across the bridge’s one lane, its wood floorboards rattling under my tires, and turned off at Slim’s Fish Camp. Charles and his brother Gordon are Slim’s sons, and they run the business as well as operate the bridge. “We’re on contract from the county, which owns the bridge,” Charles explained in a gentle drawl. “It was built in 1916, in Roanoke, Virginia, and hauled down to the east coast of Florida somewhere. They moved it here in 1939.”
Slim Corbin moved here to Belle Glade from Alabama to escape the Depression and opened his Fish Camp in 1935. Slim’s sells bait and tackle—bass is the big catch in Okeechobee—and rents boats and guide services for fishermen and for campers at the town campground on Torry Island. Tanks behind the storefront hold three main varieties of bait: crickets, minnows, and shiners.
Charles and Gordon are always there, for the waterway is open every day of the year from 7:00 A.M. to at least 6:30 P.M. “Always been here too,” Charles said. “I was born in a bridge tender’s house that used to stand right there next to the end of the bridge. On Christmas Day we do take turns going home for a few hours. The little fishing skiffs don’t need the draw, but we get those cruisers going through.” He means cabin cruisers, typically forty feet long. The bridge lies along the water route that connects the east and west shores of Florida.
“There’s really nothing to it,” Charles told me as we walked out onto the bridge. “There’s a big concrete platform under it, and it has one big gear. The bridge is on five or six rollers and rolls on a track on the gear. I take this big lever”—his ten-foot pole—“and one turn around in this hole with it unlocks the bridge, pulling out chocks at the ends and raising two dead bolts. Then I take the lever over to this other hole. That turns the bridge. I have to walk around eight times to open the bridge to straight out.
“The county comes out and greases the gears about once a month. All we do is open and close it. Doesn’t need much repair either. Last time it was repaired was 1981 or ’82, when they replanked it.” He pokes a floorboard with his pole. “Looks about ready for another planking.”
What is the most difficult part of the job, I asked. He searched for an answer. “The hardest part of this bridge,” he finally said, “is that you have to make sure you shut the gates on both sides, so somebody doesn’t run off the end there.” If somebody did run off the end, he’d likely find him- self amid not only mud but also alligators, cottonmouths, and water moccasins. The neighborhood is also home to manatees, pelicans, coots, gallinules, and other exotic forms of wildlife.
“It’s a unique part of Florida,” Charles told me. “All natural. The government owns all the land around the lake, so there are no housing developments on it. The lake is seven hundred and fifty square miles and nowhere more than fifteen feet deep. It used to be twenty-five feet deep. Dikes and canals for farming lowered it. The state water authority controls all the water flow, and if it didn’t, the water would all be gone and the land would be dry. The main problem in Florida is population growth. Of course you won’t get anyone to tell you that, but a thousand people a day move to the state, and everyone else comes down and visits. There’s not much of it left that’s as nice as Lake Okeechobee. And I don’t know of another bridge like this one either.
“This here is a unique part of history now. There was a time when I thought this bridge was just a means of getting from one side to the other. Turning it was a bit of a drudge. But now I see it’s a unique bridge at a unique time.”