LETTERS: The Little Current Swing Bridge is more than just a bridge

Doesn’t the world have enough big, modern, expensive bridges?

To the Expositor:

I’m afraid Manitoulin is heading towards a big loss, and I wonder if anyone else shares my concerns. It has to do with the swing bridge and the ideas that seem to be surfacing about its future. 

The best destinations around the world all have their unique symbols. Toronto has the CN Tower. New York has the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco has the Golden Gate bridge. Venice has its gondolas. For more than a century, the swing bridge has been Manitoulin’s own unique symbol, yet I hear talk about replacing it. This would be a huge mistake. Of course we all want reliable year-round access to the mainland. That goes without saying. The thing is, the swing bridge can be managed to provide this while also doing something no modern alternative can match. Maintaining the swing bridge is the only option that will preserve the main symbol of Manitoulin to the world. Replacing it with some modern alternative would be a big loss for our island.

When I hear people in authority using fuzzy phrases like “the bridge is nearing the end of its service life” and “we need a reliable link to the mainland,” I know public opinion is being gently led in a direction that will make Manitoulin less distinct, less marketable and less unique. Public statements like these are all connotation and no meaning. Think about it for a minute. Does anyone really believe that the designers of our swing bridge made it to last for only a certain “service life” and no more? Of course not. Any practical person knows that every mechanical thing in the world can be repaired and maintained forever in top condition if the will exists. Anything that works as good as new is as good as new. Our swing bridge is no different. Government reports tell us that it’s currently in very good condition, but of course it won’t stay that way forever. Nothing does, not even a new bridge. If technical problems with the swing bridge loom on the horizon, fix them. If the bull gear gets worn, put in a new one. If the concrete piers out in the channel start to crumble, pour new ones. If the main bearing only has so many more years of service, install a fresh one. Would anyone say that the Empire State Building or the cathedrals of Europe are “nearing the ends of their service lives?” Of course not. These working icons will always be maintained because they’re important for more than what they do. They’re also important for what they represent. Our swing bridge is no different. It moves traffic, but it’s also the most distinctive symbol we have to show the world who we are. Nothing modern can compare.

No doubt, some people will raise the objection that the swing bridge is “too expensive to maintain. A new bridge will be cheaper,” they say. Really? Show us the independently audited cost projections that prove how maintaining the bridge we’ve got will cost more than the massive amount of engineering, environmental studies, construction, maintenance and financing costs that a completely new bridge would demand. 

I’m probably not the only one who feels that a century-old Manitoulin icon is threatened. Doesn’t the world already have enough big, modern, expensive bridges? Manitoulin is a great place precisely because it’s not a big, modern, expensive place. Manitoulin’s got roots and it remembers its past. Is there anyone else out there who says we need to keep the swing bridge in great condition because of what it represents as well as what it does? Now’s the time to ensure we don’t lose Manitoulin’s most distinctive symbol.

Steve Maxwell