By Mike Bisceglia
Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, August 4, 2010
[The following article is courtesy of the Seacoast Scene.]
HAMPTON -- The Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge spans the Hampton River between Hampton Beach and Seabrook. The structure is dedicated to army pilot, Neil R. Underwood who was lost over France during World War II.
The radio crackles in the tower. There's an emergency aboard the Lady Audrey Mae. She'll need to arrive in port STAT! Medical help is already en route to the marina.
The two men on the controls in the tower of the Neil R.Underwood Memorial Bridge are not in a panic. After all, they're professionals. They've raised and lowered the bridge thousands of times.
The radio crackles again. The Lady Audrey Mae is less than five minutes away. Jim Brandfield, gateman, trains his binoculars on the fog-shrouded horizon. In seconds, he has the Lady in sight. Meanwhile, 87-year old Sal Rubera, operator, has hit the klaxon and has triggered the red warning lights. Working in practiced precision, the two prepare to raise the single-leaf vacuole center of the bridge.
Nobody wants the Lady to slow down. Nobody wants the Lady to turn to take a second run up the channel. The execution has to be perfect.
Traffic is slowing to a stop on either side of the bridge. The candy cane-colored gates have dropped into place. The Lady is less than two hundred yards away. Lowering the binoculars, Jim quickly slams them back against his eyes. He growls, drops the glasses on the tower shelf, and races down two flights of stairs to the deck of the bridge. A fisherman hasn't heeded the warning gate, and has begun to set up shop at the edge of the movable section. In seconds, Jim has secured the fisherman to a place of safety, while Sal has begun to work the mechanisms to raise the bridge. Ten seconds later, the Lady Audrey Mae races through the opening between the bridge piers. She's racing to port, and every second is critical.
The Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge spans the Hampton River between Hampton Beach and Seabrook. The structure is dedicated to army pilot, Neil R. Underwood who was lost over France during World War II. This bridge, however, is not the first to traverse the deep, fast-moving Hampton River.
The original bridge, referred to as the Mile Bridge, wasn't really quite that. From end to end, it measured 4,923 feet, but in 1902 that was enough to make it the largest, longest wooden bridge in the world. Oh, and the cost of that monumental structure - a whopping $70,000.
The toll bridge with oak planks so well-planed that they were "dance hall smooth" served foot, auto, and trolley traffic admirably well until 1949. In December of that year, the new bridge opened without fanfare. In 1953, the bridge was dedicated to Lt. Underwood, and in 1964, a small ceremony was held as a tribute to the last toll to be paid. This new bridge definitely helped to bolster vacation traffic along the seacoast.
The bridge is under the auspices of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT), while the U.S. Coast Guard governs use of the navigable waterway and general river traffic. In essence, the bridge is of vital importance to the seacoast, and must be maintained as such. This is why maintenance by Crew 6 of the NHDOT is so critical.
Jon Asmund, Bridge Maintenance Foreman, is part of a seven-man crew that handles all of the bridge essentials before any problems can arise. "We're responsible for everything," said Jon. "From concrete work to greasing and oiling all of the gears that lift the huge center section, we do it all. We have to constantly check for storm damage and any and all repairs that might need to be made to the piers that support the bridge."
As testament to the workmanship of the crew, the huge gas generator that powers the bridge lift in times of emergency has only been in use 19 hours in the last 30 years.
"And most of that time was just to test its running ability. That's not a bad record when you think of it," said Jon.
Todd Paris, a worker on the crew, handles some of the more tedious, dangerous jobs. "It's my job to constantly clean and grease the bearings under the bridge," said Todd. That doesn't sound like much, but he is doing his work roughly three-stories above the chilly, fast-moving river waters. "One of my major concerns is slipping on a slick spot and taking a tumble," Todd said with a chuckle. "That wouldn't make my day."
Crew 6 is responsible for some 200 bridges in the southern New Hampshire region, but the Underwood Bridge requires the bulk of the service. "It's been virtually problem-free, and we want to keep it that way," said Jon.
As for the operation of the center section of the bridge, those who man the tower have to be constantly on alert. "The job has its ups and downs," Sal said, with a chuckle. "We have to lift the bridge some 18 to 19 times a day during the summer months. The boats call in, and we have to be ready for them. Some folks think the bridge does the whole operation automatically. That's not the case. I've been at this job for 13 years, and I have to say nothing is routine when it comes to the safety of folks traveling both on and under the bridge. There is no such thing as 'almost perfect' when it comes to our safety record. It has to be perfect all day, every day."
Regional summer boaters have a schedule of when the tower is manned. They must contact the bridge in advance of their approach with adequate time enough to safely raise the center section. During the offseason, from November through April, they must contact the Concord office to be sure someone is on hand at the bridge to complete the task.
For the record, the Lady Audrey Mae arrived safely at the marina. The patient aboard was transferred to a local hospital, and is recuperating nicely.
The fisherman caught a good-sized striper, a definite keeper. He was already planning on a great dinner that evening.
Sal just finished another Tom Clancy novel, and he's already planning his trip to his winter home in Florida.
Soon, Jim will be taking his test to become a bridge operator. It has taken him four years of study and training. In the off season, however, he'll return to his high school classroom where he teaches English composition.