Calvin "rides" the Market Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga during its inspection
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. —
Tonight, we're going to take you where most people have never gone before. On November 17th 1917, exactly 100 years ago today, the ribbon was cut for the Market Street Bridge, one of just a few bascule bridges between Chicago and Florida..
Because it's a highway drawbridge, federal law says it has to be raised every few months to make sure it works. I've always wanted to be ON the bridge when it's raised, and tonight, we're going to ride the only highway drawbridge in Tennessee.
As my retirement from the job I've loved for the past 48 years looms, taking pictures of steel truss bridges and concrete arch bridges moves into the forefront of the next phase of my life.
The bridge.. the final frontier for me.
To quote Star Trek: "This is the voyage of the Market Street Bridge. It's 4-hour mission.. to explore a strange new world, that most of us see from afar. To seek out new life, and new civilizations (notedly the pigeons and their droppings). To boldly go where most bridges in Tennessee have never gone before."
"This particular lift drawbridge can actually raise 90 degrees into the air," says retired electrician Jack Hughes. His company is in charge of the bridge's electrical work, and he's the crew foreman for today's test to make sure the drawbridge can actually go up and down.
As an avid bridge-hunter, I've taken a couple hundred pictures of the Market Street Bridge. But I've always wondered what it would be like to literally "ride" it high in the sky..
It's a once-in-a-lifetime journey, that I hope to accomplish during this test. "Y'all ready?" Hughes radios to his crew members and the T-DOT workers. Everybody checks in "affirmative."
All the mechanical gear wheels are 100 years old, just like the bridge, and they have to be greased during every inspection.. the controls have been replaced in recent years with electronic gear. The crew is in place. "Hey Mike," Hughes says into his radio. "Go ahead... let's crack it."
The sudden louding popping of steel is startling at first. First thing I notice.. the two lift spans actually roll back from each other. "It's almost like they're swaying back and forth," I observe. I'm told the gear wheels the spans are connected to, are designed that way.
The way bascule bridges work, the two counterweights on the two bridge spans, north and south end are lowered to the ground, which then raises both spans. "Think of it as a see-saw," says Chris Smith, T-DOT's safety manager. "Bascule is French for 'see-saw."
If you're inspecting, you gotta watch for both pigeon droppings and grease droppings. "There's usually a big dollop that comes down while the guys are greasing the gears and connections," Hughes laughs. "You don't want to stand anywhere near below where they're working."
Both spans go up slowly to a point, and I'm right on the edge of the south span, about 15 feet above the rest of the highway, about 100 feet above the river channel of the Tennessee River, watching the electricians and T-DOT workers making sure the gears and the electronics check out.
Then, the spans are lowered back down for a minute. "OK, go ahead and put your brakes on, the breakers on the north side," crackled the radio.
Then, it's back up in the air. This time, all the way up to 60 degrees.. that's a pretty good lean. At this point, we are 40 feet above the roadway surface, and about 140 feet above the water.
The span I'm on, is still floating in time and space. It is a dizzying effect, as the spans slowly sway back and forth.
The appropriate ending to a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I get ready to wrap up my 48-year careerin a very memorable way.
Of course.. it's with a bridge.
"Is it fun?" I ask Smith. "It's fun the first couple of times," came the thoughtful answer. "Come out here in the middle of winter and let me know," he laughs.
Just because the bridge is closed for inspection, doesn't often stop somebody from trying to drive or walk across it. We're told a jogger actually thought that the sidewalk actually stayed down and only the road goes up.
The next quarterly inspection will be sometime in January..