Carol Ann Ross
Bridges to Cross and Their Tenders
The swing bridge has been gone nearly three years and I, for one, truly miss it. Coming across our little bridge was like taking a step from one kind of place into another-from a hurried and less concerned place to one much kinder and gentler. Alas, it is gone and so we make do with the present-can’t live in the past now, can we?
If you do like taking a peak at the past, here’s a little info about the early days of our swing bridge and the men who tended it. But first, let me tell you how the site for the bridge was chosen.
Around 1940, a few men from Camp Davis in Holly Ridge were sent out to find the best access to the banks (what our little splotch of land was often called) and as they rode their horses down the dusty dirt trail from Holly Ridge they came upon Earl Batts’ farm. (Earl’s farm would be at the intersection of Hwy. 50 and Hwy. 210.) Like most people in this area at the time, Mr. Batts was a farmer. The men on horseback asked Mr. Earl where the shortest distance from the mainland to the banks was and Mr. Earl suggested Sears Landing. After learning this, the Army went about building the first access to our island. It came in the way of a pontoon bridge and it was operated by James “Buddy” Batson, Walter Hall and Mr. Earl Batts.
Though the pontoon bridge did provide access to the banks, there were problems at times. Often it would be blown away to Goat Island, the little island just to the north of Sears Landing. The bridge would then have to be towed back into place until the next time a “good breeze” came along. Sometimes the motor would break down or the pulley system would snap, either way, traffic was stopped.
Then there was the muffler problem. High and low tides provided discrep-ancies in the distance between the bridge and the landing itself. If the distance was too high or too low, Boom, there went your muffler. Needless to say, the pontoon bridge was a crap shoot.
Finally in 1954 construction for a new bridge came underway. That bridge, our old swing bridge, was modern and new then and everyone was excited about safer access to the island. However, on October 15, 1954 Hurricane Hazel swept through our area and much of what had been accomplished in the way of building the bridge was destroyed. Needless to say, the swing bridge did not and Batts stayed on as bridge tenders adding Lacy “Woody” Atkinson. For several years they took turns operating the bridge, filling in for one another when need be. Family emergencies often meant working days without a break.
The swing bridge was constructed with a small operation building at the top center of the metal structure. Two control boxes flickered green and red as boats approached. A CB radio crackled with the voices of boat captains as they gave notice of when they would be near the bridge. Switches were flipped to open the bridge, and switches were flipped to close it. Sounds easy, but there was a finesse to opening and closing, since it had to be done just right and at the right time.
I remember, as a kid, climbing the metal stairs that led to the bridge house and asking Mr. Earl Batts if I could ride around as the bridge turned. He always let me. Man, what a big deal that was to a little kid. But things were different then, there weren’t so many rules and regulations. But I digress, back to the bridge.
The bridge tenders did more than press buttons and watch for boats, they had tasks like opening and closing the hand cranked gates in all kinds of weather (there were no electronic gates back then). They had to judge distances, boat sizes and their timing had to be spot on.
One of their least favorite jobs, I suppose, was that of greasing the gears beneath the bridge. It was dangerous jumping from one piling to another, especially when holding a bucket of grease and a brush while doing so. Surely this was not an easy task. These men had to be quick, dexterous, and patient. If you think about it, the people of Topsail Island trusted their lives and livelihoods to the bridge tenders.
I like to think that that old swing bridge was them, strong, dependable, but now kind of passe compared to present times. The new bridge is beautiful, the view of the ocean it offers is spectacular. But the ocean has always been spectacular all on its own. Still, being the new kid on the block, I guess to those who never visited Topsail during the swing bridge days, I guess it offers its own magic too.
(Many other tenders, men and women came after Batts, Batson and Atkinson. Thank you for your service)
Part of Issue 1: