As I drove to the Manitoulin Island community of Little Current, Ontario, luck was something that was foremost on my mind. First, I knew I was lucky to get this opportunity. Second, I would be extremely lucky if the forecast rain and potential thunderstorms held off until after I was finished. Finally, my luck would hit the trifecta if a boat would present itself at just the right time. If the last two elements came together as the first had, I would be a very happy person.
The swing bridge is the only fixed link between Manitoulin Island and the mainland. During the summer months, you can take the ferry, Chi-Cheemaun from South Baymouth to Tobermory. During the winter months, however, this bridge is critical.
The Algoma Eastern Railway began construction of what was originally a rail-only bridge in September, 1912. By October the following year, trains were beginning to cross it regularly. In March, 1930, a lease agreement transferred control of the bridge to the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Beginning on November 28, 1946, the CPR made an agreement with the Ministry of Transportation to allow vehicle traffic over the bridge, thereby ending the need for the small ferry that was being used to this point. Before this time, the bridge had been kept open, closing only when required for trains to cross. With the new agreement, however, the bridge would now be kept mostly closed, with a CPR employee on hand to open it when required by passing boats or ships.
In the 1980's, rail service to the island ended and ownership of the bridge went to the MTO. The rails were eventually lifted. In 2003, the MTO replaced the 25 HP Fairbanks-Morse gas-powered engine with electric motors and later resurfaced the bridge. Maintenance continues as necessary, and there is no end in sight for this iconic structure.
The operator met me on the south end of the bridge and immediately guided me through every possible area. He explained the operation of each part, patiently answering my questions, and even more patiently allowing me all the time I needed to take my pictures. We climbed to the control room that straddles the mid-section of the bridge, suspended over the roadway. He explained the function of the controls, and walked me through the process of stopping vehicle traffic, and opening the bridge for passing marine traffic. As the clock's hands swept ever closer to the top of the hour, the time when the bridge would open, if required, there were no boats to be seen. He explained that, after Labour Day, there wasn't nearly the number of openings as during the rest of summer.
I resigned myself to not seeing the whole thing in action. We descended the stairs and stood on the platform at road-level talking about recent work done to maintain the bridge as vehicles passed us by. We shook hands and I prepared to part as we both spotted a boat approaching. Was it high enough to require opening the bridge? Was actually going to get this lucky? Sure enough, it stopped and waited patiently for the top of the hour.
We climbed again to the control room and he explained each step as he did it. It was fascinating to watch on the video display as each part of the bridge's machinery worked to rotate this mass of steel out of the way for the boat it dwarfed below. My phone in the window recorded the process in a video recording while I fluttered from window to window, and out onto the landing to photograph various viewpoints, trying in vain to catch everything. The boat passed with a wave from her captain, and all too soon, the bridge was closing, ending with a gentle thump at the end.
Again, I thanked my host, and made way back to my car, a broad smile on my face as luck had, indeed, been on my side.