Bridge gives harbour a lift


Staff member
Feb 15, 2004
The Beach Strip
Bridge gives harbour a lift
By Lori Fazari
The Hamilton Spectator

(Nov. 23, 2002) -- A voice comes over the marine radio in the control tower. "Burlington Bridge."

Bridge operator Robert Homewood grabs the radio and asks the person on the other end to switch to the ship-to-shore channel.

The radio crackles. The Lac Manitoba tugboat has left its dock at McKeil Marine. It's sailing towards the canal and needs the bridge lifted.

A few minutes later, with the push of some buttons and turn of a dial, the 2,200-tonne bridge is soaring into the air between two towers.

Every year the bridge goes up and down for some 6,500 vessels. It's seen more than 166,380 lifts since the winter day in 1962 when it made its first ascent.

The bridge operates from March until December, when the water is ice-free and the St. Lawrence Seaway is open. The winter months are spent on maintenance, taking apart and cleaning the gears.

"The real grunt work happens in the winter during shutdown," says bridgemaster Clare Lamont, who has worked here 16 years.

And the real worry comes when the switch is flicked to lift it for the first time in the spring. "There's always a bit of stress there, hoping that everything's going to run smoothly," Lamont says.

"The thing is getting old."

Before a bridge over the canal was built, before the beach strip was settled, before the city developed, this was a small, shallow inlet.

It offered the only passageway from Lake Ontario into the harbour, but wasn't big enough for cargo ships. So in the early 1800s, supplies were dropped off on the beach strip and loaded onto barges operating in the harbour.

This clearly wasn't efficient enough to meet the needs of a growing population. Work began on excavating a proper canal.

It opened in 1826, clearing the way for the development of Hamilton's port as the largest in terms of tonnage on the Great Lakes.

With the opening of shipping came the need for a way to move people across the canal, then 18 metres wide.

Five bridges have served that purpose over the years. The first swing bridge was built in 1830 and damaged soon after when a schooner crashed into it. A scow-ferry service then shipped people across the canal until 1896, when an electrically operated swing bridge was built.

The swing bridge saw its final swing some 30 years later with the opening of a bascule bridge. That, too, suffered damage from a ship that hit its north span in 1952.

A temporary replacement was put in place until the current incarnation was built. Meanwhile, the Skyway bridge opened to handle the high volume of traffic crossing the beach strip.

Today, the steel lift bridge operates alongside the constant thrum of cars zooming across the Skyway. The operators work in the green tower that stands between the bridge and the 1858 limestone lighthouse, which hasn't been used since 1968.

The operator and assistant operator switch every 12 hours, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. On the day shift they're joined by the bridgemaster and maintenance mechanic.

Lamont oversees the whole operation for Public Works and Government Services Canada, which owns the site.

The canal is now 91.5 metres wide and roughly nine metres deep. When the bridge is down, there's still a three-metre clearance for smaller vessels.

Lifts happen on the half hour for pleasure boaters and on demand for commercial vessels, which arrive day and night. During the summer, things are hopping with a steady flow of sailboats and other pleasure craft.

Homewood grabs his binoculars and looks out at the harbour. The tugboat is within view of the bridge's control room.

He sounds the horn to warn that the bridge is about to lift. Looks for a break in traffic on Eastport Drive. Switches the traffic light to red.

Gates lower across the road, red lights flashing. The cars are stopped.

A canal has always been here. So boats and ships always have the right of way over vehicles and pedestrians.

Homewood moves over to the steel control panel in the centre of this narrow, third-floor room. He pushes a button that makes a warning siren wail and logs the tugboat's name and the time on a clipboard.

Then he flicks a switch to unlock the machinery that holds the bridge in place. The siren fades and gears click as they groan into action.

The tug approaches, and with the turn of a dial the bridge rises.

It takes two minutes to lift or lower it completely. But it's raised well before a ship is nearby. Vessels can't exactly brake in a hurry if there's a problem and the bridge stops midway.

"Knock wood, there hasn't been anything lately," Lamont says. "We've had a submarine go through here. We've lifted the bridge for a float plane that wanted out." or 905-526-3993.


Registered User
Jan 13, 2005
someone should tell bob homewood when the boat calls in for the bridge to go up and its just entering the st. lawerence river the bridge still has plenty of time before you need to put it up ive been in line many times for what seems to be forever waiting for something to go through the canal i sometime think he puts it up and a submarine goes through because the boats are still in the st.lawerence river.(just kidding good job skipper, gilligan and the rest of the crew at the bridge)
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