On a chilly, rainy early fall day, there are no boats traveling under the Dorset Avenue Bridge, except for a lone sculler slicing through the still black water.
It's quiet, except for the near constant vibrating hum of tires rolling across the Ventnor drawbridge's metal grate.
The day will pass quickly for Joe Carty, one of the workers who spends eight hours a day on the bridge, 40 hours a week, opening and closing the spans for boats below.
Joe and the other five bridge tenders can't leave during their shift. There's a restroom in one of the towers. If they forget their lunch, local pizza and sub shops know where to deliver.
On the busy days during the summer, the bridge opens twice an hour, with a line of boats waiting to pass. But on the days when there is no traffic, the bridge tender's job is one of isolation and boredom.
They watch TV, read, walk along the boards, just trying to find a way to pass the time between openings, if one will even occur. The workers pool money to pay for a cable television hookup in the tiny control room that has a leather easy chair, also bought through a money pool. Joe has the television on, but rarely turns on the sound. The quiet is his favorite part of the job, even as traffic hums along.
"I can't really hear horns anymore. I'm just so used to it," he says. "The humming of the grate drives a lot of people crazy, but I don't even hear it any more."
The Dorset Avenue Bridge is one of about a dozen drawbridges that cross the Intracoastal Waterway in New Jersey. The waterway is a navigational route along the bays and sheltered waters maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is designed for boaters to have a safer route than in the open ocean.
As bridges have been replaced by higher spans, the number of drawbridges in the state is declining. The most recent drawbridge to move to extinction is the Ninth Street Bridge in Ocean City. But other bridges, such as the Albany Avenue Bridge in Atlantic City and the 96th Street Bridge in Stone Harbor, are along banks that are too narrow or too developed for a high fixed span to be installed, so an icon of seaside communities will continue to live on.
There are 12 manned drawbridges crossing the Intracoastal Waterway in New Jersey, with nine of those in Atlantic or Cape May counties. Atlantic County owns and operates the Dorset Avenue Bridge. Other bridges are operated privately, such as the Margate Bridge, or by the state, including the Albany Avenue Bridge in Atlantic City and the Route 47 Bridge in Wildwood.
NJDOT operates 20 drawbridges in the state, some of which are unmanned. As of 2010, there were 458 movable bascule bridges in the U.S., 33 of which are in New Jersey, the Federal Highway Administration says.
As drawbridges throughout the country are replaced by higher fixed-span bridges, the number of bridge tenders continues to decline. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 3,900 people nationwide were employed as bridge or lock tenders in 2002. But by 2010, that number had dropped to 3,250. In 2010, 170 bridge or lock tenders were employed in New Jersey, the third highest concentration in the U.S.
In Ventnor, the waterway slices the city into two, the Absecon Island side and the Ventnor Heights side. The Dorset Avenue Bridge is the only span in the city linking the sides and when it's closed to traffic for repairs, motorists have to drive several miles to the Albany Avenue Bridge in Atlantic City.
But even when it's closed to motor traffic, a bridge tender must be on duty because of Coast Guard regulations. When it snows, someone is still on the bridge, shoveling the sidewalks. When it's 5 degrees in the middle of January and ice has formed on the water, a bridge tender is still on the job, waiting, watching, listening. If a boat requests an opening, it cannot be denied passage.
Joe, 48, began working at the bridge in 1986. The job was 40 hours a week and paid about $9,000 a year. He worked other jobs during the day and would come to the bridge at night, staying awake many days from midnight to 8 a.m. before going to his other job. He liked that shift the best because it was so quiet, giving him time to think. He lived in Ventnor at the time, but now lives in Hammonton. He likes the trees and quiet. Where he grew up, in Galloway Township, there are too many people now, he says.
The pay has improved over the years, his two children have graduated from college and his wife works. He doesn't need as much money, so he's content working one job, as a bridge tender. He's now the supervisor of the department and occasionally works a day off the bridge in an office, going to meetings.
Inside the tiny control room there is a television, a telephone, the silver control panel with analog dials and a brown easy chair. For Joe, the old office chair killed his back, coming up only halfway on his 6-foot, 3-inch frame. They used to have satellite television, but that got too expensive. Now the tenders pool money to pay for a cable link. It's something, anything, to keep from going crazy during the isolation and quiet.
A pale crab claw sits on the concrete next to the control room door, which is on the southwestern tower. Joe laughs when asked about it and says the seagulls dropped it. They drop lots of things on the bridge and on the roof of the towers. Clams, crabs, mussels. The birds drop the animals on the roof, hoping to crack them open for food. The first time Joe heard the noise it startled him. Now he barely notices.
In the middle of the bridge, where the spans meet, the structure jumps and vibrates as traffic moves across. If a bus comes, the bounce is jarring. This is Joe's favorite spot on the bridge, not because of the bounce, but because there's always a breeze.
One woman, Joe notes, walks her large dog across the bridge daily, but one morning the dog freaked at the vibration and froze. The woman ultimately turned around to take the dog home. Other dogs, he says, refuse to cross because of the vibration. Their owners will drag them or sometimes pick them up and carry them. But then there are dogs that happily prance across with no hesitation.
Sometimes a child or teenager will walk up too close while the bridge is open, mostly to see how far they can get. They're usually curious, not trying to cause trouble. But then there are the teens that try to jump from the bridge, into the water just about 10 feet down. Joe tries to get them to leave, but all he can do is say no, you're not allowed, and call the police. Some leave, some jump anyway, as a dare or a challenge.
There isn't much to operating the bridge. The operator pushes a button to bring down the gates to block traffic. Then he pushes another button to raise the bridge. His foot stands on a pedal to keep everything working. If his foot drops off, the bridge stops. Joe must call the Ventnor police before raising the bridge, to ensure there are enough police officers on each side. If they are busy or there aren't enough officers on one side, the tender has to wait.
There are the regular walkers, who pass by every day on their way to the beach or the store. One woman has a jogging stroller. A man always is on a beater bicycle, usually carrying a surfboard. Another woman is running with her dog. They, like so many crossing the bridge, wave hello to Joe. He's a steady presence, almost like the mail carrier.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm running for mayor because on particular days, it seems like everybody knows me," he says.
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