by Jason Burnett
Do you know about the man in the bridge? Numerous employees have held this job but no one for nearly as long as this last man. I’m talking, of course, about the Little Current swing bridge which was constructed in 1913 by the Algoma Eastern Railway. It is the only land link to the North Shore for Manitoulin Island. At this time, the bridge was only meant for rail-traffic and did you know that the bridge was always left in its open position to let boat traffic through? It only closed when there was a train.
This would later change in 1946 when the most recent owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), and the Ministry of Transportation came to an agreement to convert it to both rail and vehicle traffic. At that point, the bridge was always left in the closed position to allow vehicle traffic on and off the Island. This is when CPR hired the first man in the bridge…
The man in the bridge is stationed in a little house that is nestled up high in the black iron trusses of the bridge. He overlooks all traffic as it passes beneath his humble abode and maintains a vigilant watch for boat traffic. He swings the bridge accordingly every hour on the hour during spring, summer and fall months to let the larger boats through.
It should be noted that rail service to Manitoulin Island was abandoned altogether in the early 1980s but this didn’t seem to affect the most recent man in the bridge. In fact, the mid-1980s was the first time I can recall seeing him. To this very day, I still tell my own children about the man in the bridge and you know what, we always see him when we pass under his little house. Strangely enough, we never see him very clearly and he just looks like a moving shadow in the window. I’ve often told my kids to wave. Sometimes he waves back.
Recently, my family and I were driving back on the Island and we were at that abandoned house at Ten Mile Point when a news report came on advising that bridge was undergoing construction. The report went on to say that the automation system needed adjustment for the bridge to function properly. It also said that the delays it would cause were absolutely necessary as the bridge hasn’t been manned since the early 1980s. I had to confirm what I had just heard with my wife as we looked at each other in horror. Her expression told me she was thinking the same thing I was. Later that day, I held my breath going across the bridge. I didn’t see any sign of the man in the bridge as we approached the little house in the trusses. It was only when I snuck a peak in my rearview mirror that I noticed a dark shadow waving with delight. My name is Jason Burnett and my family goes back many generations on Manitoulin Island. I have seen the man in the bridge. Have you?
Jason Burnett is a Haweater, formerly of Little Current, who now resides in North Bay with his wife Kara and their two boys.