Originally created 08/18/99

Ups and downs



SAVANNAH -- In the seven years he's been pushing the buttons and twisting the dials that make the Islands Expressway drawbridge go up and down, Don Wilson has passed the time waving to boat captains, feeding the homeless and hiding from angry drivers backed up in traffic.

The bridge is one of three still operating in Chatham County. But the men who operate the drawbridges see them fading into history as they're replaced by towering spans that allow ships to pass underneath without stopping cars.

In a box-like building on the bridge, Mr. Wilson works with a button-covered control panel that he says makes him feel like the Phantom of the Opera or George Jetson. It's a job that requires an acute sense of timing to accommodate both boat and car traffic.

Mr. Wilson, now the assistant bridge supervisor, recalls his first day on the job seven years ago, when he held the bridge for an approaching boat for eight minutes as motorists piled up on the expressway.

"I laid down in the floor in case rocks came through the window," he said.

Now things go more smoothly.

When a boat approaches, he turns a black dial to start the red warning lights, waiting for cars to clear before closing the gates that block the center span of the bridge.

Then he unlocks the 100-pound steel pins that keep the bridge spans in place and hits a yellow button to raise the spans to 60-degree angles. Mr. Wilson waves to the captain of the passing boat, then lowers the spans back to 30 degrees. From there he uses a floor-pedal clutch to ease them back into place.

Other than the controls, the small bridge house contains a television, a stack of old magazines, a refrigerator and several two-way radios. But no bathroom. That's under the bridge, along with the power generators and greasy gears that make the bridge work.

Occasionally, curious passers-by stop their cars at the bridge house and asked for tours, which Mr. Wilson says are prohibited for safety reasons. Once, a homeless man knocked at the door asking if the expressway would take him to New York.

When the man asked Mr. Wilson to radio a boat so he could hitch a ride, Mr. Wilson gave him a sandwich and water instead.

The bridge tenders -- Chatham County employs nine in all -- have also been known to help police by raising the bridge to stop fleeing criminals.

The coastal county's three drawbridges were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The bridge tenders know they'll likely be replaced some day by high-rise bridges that don't inconvenience boats or traffic.

Until then, Mr. Wilson plans to keep working the drawbridge's buttons and dials.

"Come on down," he sings softly, lowering the spans back into place.