Joyce “Jay” Lockerby doesn’t like heights or being on bridges, which makes her choice of occupation unusual. Then again, hers is an unusual job: operating the drawbridge on the Bastille Bridge, more commonly known among locals as the Grand Isle-North Hero bridge. It’s Vermont’s only drawbridge, and Lockerby is one of only two people in the state who operate it.
Lockerby, a Vermont Agency of Transportation employee, has been working the drawbridge on Route 2 for about 11 years. After a friend of hers retired from the post in 1998, she applied for the job, seeking a change from her work as a home health aid.
Lockerby was born in 1953, the same year the bridge was built. It’s not a difficult job, she admits. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. from May 15 until October 15, she watches for large boats — sailboats, cabin cruisers, fishing vessels and so on — that are too tall to pass under the span. This is one of only three passageways between the main body of Lake Champlain and the inland sea, and the only one large enough to admit boats that stand 17 feet above the waterline.
When a boat needs the drawbridge raised, it either radios the bridge house, blows its horns or waits for Lockerby to notice. Then she walks out to the bridge tower, an octagonal, red-brick perch overlooking the water, and starts the process.
First Lockerby waits for road traffic to subside; then she flips a switch that rings the warning bells and lowers the crossing gates. With the way clear, she depresses a foot pedal that retracts the retaining pins holding the two bridge spans in place and gets the gears turning.
Jim Dubuque, the maintenance man who’s supervised the bridge’s upkeep since 2004, explains the mechanics. Basically, it’s a “counterbalance bridge” that operates on gravity using a series of interlocking gears that raise and lower the spans, or “leaves.” Except for the electronic controls and galvanized steel span that was replaced two years ago, it’s all original equipment. Dubuque should know — his father helped build the bridge.
The south leaf rises slightly ahead of the north one. Once they’re both upright, Lockerby gives the boat the green light to sail through. Per U.S. Coast Guard regulations, she jots down the vessel’s name, direction of travel, weather conditions, wind speed and other relevant info. All that data goes in a log book back in the bridge house, which documents about 15 years of passing boats.
Lockerby can only raise the bridge twice per hour. She tries to keep it raised for no more than 10 minutes, often no more than five. In part, it’s to minimize the delay for motorists. And, once the bridge is up, the operator is essentially stuck inside the tower, where it can get pretty hot — as much as 110 degrees — as this reporter discovered on a recent sweltering afternoon.
As a boat passed through that day, Lockerby wrote down its name: the Coryphêne, a 40-foot sailboat out of Montréal. The clearance was about 16 feet today, according to a gauge at the waterline. “But that’s just a rough estimate,” Dubuque warned. “Don’t take our word for it.”
When asked about her distaste for heights and bridges, Lockerby just shrugged and laughed. “Yeah, it’s kind of funny,” she said. “But the other girl they just hired is terrified of spiders. And this place is full of them.”
SEVEN DAYS: Was there any special training required for your job?
JAY LOCKERBY: Just learning how to operate the bridge.
SD: What’s the best part of your job?
JL: Having all winter off. [Laughs] I only work five months a year.
SD: What do you do the rest of the year?
JL: Enjoy my grandkids.
SD: What’s the worst part of your job?
JL: The people in the cars that aren’t too pleasant and get pissed off because they have to wait 10 minutes. They’ll go by and swear or flip me off or whatever. They’re just cranky people. I just smile and wave.
SD: Do those cars typically have out-of-state plates?
JL: No. Usually Vermont locals, unfortunately ... I mean, this [bridge] is a rarity. There’s not a lot of them operating in the United States anymore. I think it’s gorgeous. I just don’t get it.
SD: How many boats do you get per day during peak season?
JL: Oh, 20, 22, especially on weekends when it gets busy. But normally 10 to 15. When it’s really busy, it’s every half-hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some days we put 100 boats through. And that’s not counting the ones that can go under.
SD: How busy has it been lately?
JL: Last year was busier than the year before. This year’s been pretty slow so far. Usually we’re busier than this at this time of year. But the economy stinks; the Canadian dollar dropped again, and gas is going up again. There are a lot of factors. Last year, with as high as the gas prices were, the Canadian economy was good, so there were a lot of Canadian boats out. Not so good this year.
SD: Do boats hit the bridge often?
JL: Very seldom. We had one last year. We have actual traffic lights down there. When I know they can clear it, I give them the green light. Well, he didn’t wait, and he tried to sneak through and pulled the light right off. We got the name of the boat, and the sheriff went out and took care of it. Occasionally we’ll have a person not paying attention and take out one of the gates [on Route 2].
SD: Ever get big vessels coming through here?
JL: The [1862 schooner] Lois McClure came through the other day. Saturday, a lobster boat came through that had just been built in Maine. The owner drove it down from Maine. That was pretty cool.
SD: Did you get any lobster from him?
JL: I wish they had a basket, but no.
SD: Does anything keep the bridge from operating, besides the lake freezing over?
JL: If we have thunderstorms. I’ve seen lightning hit the tower. If there’s a storm, we don’t go out there.
SD: How often does that happen?
JL: Two or three times a year.
SD: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever seen?
JL: You don’t want to know!
SD: Yes, I do.
JL: Well, I’ve seen naked women ... I’ve been saluted and waved at, and not by their hands. Believe me, I’ve seen it all! ... Three guys on a boat went through once on a gorgeous day. It was the only boat going through and ... they all whipped it out and shook it at me, all three of them! And I just pointed at them and laughed. I said, “You guys aren’t going to embarrass me. I’m too old for that!” And I did embarrass them, because they put ’em away and turned around.
SD: Anything else?
JL: That, and the two people going at it on the back of a cabin cruiser that went through, just nonchalant, like it was no big deal.
Like, oh my Quad! Quadricentennial, that is. After a long build-up, the massive celebration on account of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival here 400 years ago is finally upon us, and we can hardly contain the puns.
This week we preview some events in the Burlington International Waterfront Festival — see Dan Bolles’ Q&A with Steve Earle. But while we look forward to the fun, this issue also looks back — at the rich human and natural history surrounding Lake Champlain. Lauren Ober visits four individuals whose livelihoods and passions have depended on the water. She also tours the embattled Fort Montgomery across the lake. Elisabeth Crean wades through the hefty bio of Champlain the peaceful explorer, and Alice Levitt forages at the Abenaki Traditional Garden in the Intervale. Marc Awodey offers the most sobering perspective with a poem about lives lost beneath the waves.
Any way you look at it, Champlain is a lake with stories worth telling.
This is just one article from our 2009 Quadricentennial Issue. Click here for more Quadricentennial stories.