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Hey Bridge Tender! Why Do You Keep Raising The Bridge?

“What is a day in the life of a Seattle bridge tender?”

Laura Osterbrock of Magnolia asked that question as part of KUOW’s Local Wonder project.

Part of the answer: Sometimes they watch drivers throw fits as the bridge starts to rise.

“Some drivers do interact, with their hand signals,” said Ballard Bridge tender David Leask with a bit of a shrug. “You hear them screaming sometimes.”

Leask has operated the Ballard Bridge for 18 years. He started working the bridges in 1987, first operating the Montlake Bridge.

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He got the job through his dad, who was also a bridge operator.

It’s a controversial job, which is why Leask dodges the work question at dinner parties.

“I would never say I was a bridge operator because sometimes it would just dominate the conversation all of a sudden, especially if there was a boater,” he said. “I always just say I work for the city.”

Leask dresses casually – jeans and a button-up plaid shirt – and his moustache is silver-white. His office is a perch in the Ballard Bridge control tower, a modest space with a desk and a sliver of a bathroom. Not much has changed since the tower was built in 1960.

“The biggest addition we ever had on the bridges is we have air conditioning now, because this is a tin box, so it’s always really hot or really cold,” he said.

Seattle has 25 bridge tenders who operate four movable bridges. The Ballard, University and Fremont bridges are drawbridges. The Spokane Street Bridge is a swing bridge.

Bridge traffic is controversial in Seattle. Boaters have grown impatient while drivers wondered “why the hell the bridge went up for one sailboat.”

That’s right – boat traffic has the right of way, except during morning and afternoon rush hour when the bridge is closed to boats for two hours.

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The rest of the day, even if it’s just one vessel, Leask has to open up. The Ballard Bridge opens on average 325 times a month in the summer. That’s about 11 openings a day.

The busiest bridge in Seattle is the Fremont, which opens on average 15 times a day in the summer.

Seattle bridges might close for longer stretches at rush hour, however. The city is petitioning the U.S. Coast Guard to extend the hours.

But even during rush hour, the bridges still open for large commercial vessels.

Those never have to stop, which means Leask has to act quickly when he gets the call that a tugboat is headed his way with a large ship.

A recent call went like this: “We’re in the canal here, we’re approaching Western Stock here and towing one fish boat here. We’ll need a lift when we get down your way there.”

Leask: “That’s a roger, when you get within range, I’ll put the bridge up.”

Leask said he gets nervous at times.

“I try and act professional,” Leask said, “but it can get a little hairy up here, when you’re trying to get the bridge up and out of the way for large vessels.”

There’s also pressure to get everyone off the bridge to raise it in time for the ship to get through.

“The first thing I do when I’m ready to start the bridge is a long and a short” – that’s the horn sound – “and press the button to stop traffic.”

After the cars stop for the red light, Leask lowers the gates.

“I just scan the sidewalk right here to make sure nobody’s hiding or walking on the bridge,” he said.

When the bridge came up, a huge ship towed by a tug went through, followed by the Lady Washington, a classic wooden schooner headed west for the Chittenden Locks.

A seasoned operator like Leask has seen it all.

He remembers when someone in a sailboat misjudged their height and smashed right into the bridge.

And then there was the guy on the brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle —

“The motorcycle came up, right when I was starting up the opening and took off across the bridge and he packed on his brakes,” he said.

The bridge kept opening and the motorcycle kept going at about 15 miles per hour. Then he hit the other side and “flipped up over on top of the north span just like a movie, just like it was planned,” Leask said. “I didn’t know if he was going to live or die, until he wound up on his seat rear end on the north span.”

As summer comes to a close and boat traffic slows down, the Ballard Bridge opens less frequently.

For the operators, that means long hours without much to do. Leask reads the paper to pass the time. But he does get occasional entertainment from boaters below.

“The comical things usually happen on the water, whether it’s skinny dippers or flashers, or people might now know that you’re up here looking down,” he said. “The things people do when they think nobody’s watching.”

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