by Tim Gilmore, 7/3/2023
Steel webbings, mottled red, rise oxidized over the river, counterweight and span in continuous balance, boiling in the hot winds that scald skin. This great beast hulks ponderously, strangely gracious in its industrial lacework, a dinosaur skeleton laid lovingly over the waters.
One morning, as stray figures walk the Acosta Bridge overhead, the winds batter the railway bridge without ceasing; another morning the stagnant air hovers burning and motionless, singeing the wings of gulls and grackles and ospreys.
When Joseph Fennell takes the job, lacing steel across the St. Johns River, he does so unaware of the sacrifice required. Building the city demands lives, creation from destruction, gardens from burial sites. It crushes his chest. It crushes his heart and his lungs. Passing a fellow worker at the top of a moving crane, Joe loses his footing, slips, falls 40 feet. Late Thursday afternoon, March 29, 1924, he’s dead before they place him on the operating table at Old St. Luke’s Hospital.
This is how it works. When the locomotive clears the river, the pivot point called the trunnion shifts against the great counterweight device called the bascule, which raises the road high up in the air and points diagonally to the sky, allowing boats and ships and barges to pass underneath. The massive double-track bridge pivots on a central core like a see-saw.
It’s even worse that the city sacrifices Joe Fennell after having sacrificed itself already. In the 1880s, Jacksonville is “Winter City in Summerland,” but oil magnate and railroad builder Henry Flagler falls in love with St. Augustine to the city’s south in the winter of 1883 and ’84. In 2023, his grand Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, still punctuates St. Augustine’s skyline.
Flagler plans to develop St. Augustine as the American Riviera, replacing Jax as snowbird southern terminus. He collects railroads and builds railroads and networks them into the Florida East Coast Railway. His 1890 railroad bridge crossing the St. Johns River in the center of Jacksonville connects St. Augustine to points north to bypass Jax altogether. Building the new bridge over Jacksonville’s central waters spurns the city that hosts it.
In 1925, the bridge, centered on several stories of bridge tenders’ shacks, replaces the bridge built in 1890, when newspapers reported gawkers gathered on wharves to behold the unbelievable sight of the long metal serpent thundering on water.
The span rises. The span falls. The train rattles the bridge and the river in its primordial bed. The bridge, without ceasing, Joe Fennell or no Joe Fennell, shakes itself apart and into these waters that flow into the Atlantic. A pod of porpoise sports underneath, cuts graceful arcs of their bodies against the rigid body of the bridge. River spume and scud and swill spray from spiracles at the top and back of the porpoises’ heads.
“Editor’s Note: Last week’s chapter of Rube Allyn’s adventures aboard the Best Bet left him outside a fishing camp along the St. Johns River with a stranger pointing a gun at his head and a dog snapping at his legs.” Thus does Florida wax eternal, ever neverchanging. It’s the conclusion, Chapter Six, of The Tampa Bay Times’s “Journeying Across Florida in a Cruising Houseboat” series, November 13, 1949.
“Steaming up the channel,” Allyn writes, coming into Jacksonville, “passing tugs and barges, we exchanged toot for toot and always got a hearty wave from the tug pilothouses. The railroad bridge at Jacksonville is a ponderous thing and must weigh thousands and thousands of tons. We hesitated at first to toot our horn to set all that in motion. Surely just raising it would cost more than building this boat. But we tooted and majestically the bridge raised. The men in the tower bowed to us and doffed their caps.”
Elsewhere Allyn says water hyacinths sometimes so thickly wrap themselves around the boat that: “this called for someone to go overboard and do a hand job.” Same year, the Associated Press reports “a lack of oxygen” in the river caused by pollution kills thousands of small fish. A silvery iridescent cloud of thousands of piscine corpses, covered in the hovering of flies and stink, has collected and “cluttered around the Florida East Coast Railway Bridge over the St. Johns River here.” Globules of putrescence coalesce into squalid squamous islands.
A bridgetender grills steaks on a back deck beneath the upturned railroad tracks seemingly positioned to launch locomotives at the moon. Rats and terns and swallowtails and pigeons and the occasional lost and wind-blown gecko defecate on steel ladders that careen and lurch and pitch and yaw way up over other ladders that scramble over others.
“It is always a thrill to come down the St. Johns River and blow for the great railroad bridge that crosses the center of Jacksonville,” Allyn writes when The Tampa Bay Times reports a repeat journey for the Best Bet in 1950. “This was my second experience of seeing that gigantic structure move majestically up in the air, the signal blocks turn red on the main line and the proud New York to Miami Sunshine Special, with hundreds of passengers aboard, stop respectfully on the track as Best Bet puffed saucily down the river.”
For only a few hours does the bomb threat delay four Florida East Coast trains on Tuesday, February 11, 1964. Just that previous Sunday has the FEC railroad bridge near Miami blown apart into the Oleta River. The FEC reports two anonymous bomb threats to the Jacksonville bridge. Armed guards spot four men spidering its underbelly at 6:15 a.m., but the men slip invisibly away when challenged. Authorities find no explosives; the trains proceed.
Authorities hold former switchmen on charges of trying to dynamite a train and another employee with conspiracy. “The railroad’s non-operating unions have been on strike for over a year,” the Associated Press reports. “Operating unions are respecting picket lines.” The attacks mark the most violent instances of labor movement sabotage since the explosions of multiple rail lines, including Jacksonville trestles over Fishweir Creek, in 1922.
April Fool’s Day, 1975, the Revilo 922, a barge 260+ feet long, rams the original St. Elmo Acosta Bridge – the Bethlehem Steel Co. and Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Co. vertical lift bridge for automobiles – opened in 1921, and the 1924 & ’5 Florida East Coast Railway Bridge, spilling an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of oil into the already polluted and mostly dead St. Johns River. In two separate places, collisions rupture the barge, carrying 735,000 gallons of oil.
A Coast Guard port safety officer says, “Boom dispatched to the scene immediately and the remainder of the product is being removed from the barge.” Says Acting Port Captain Sam Cavallaro: cause for the accident, undetermined. Damaged barge is beached. Four crewmen report aboard the tugboat. The barge, however, is unattended at the time it rams the bridges. A tug skipper named Ellis calls “the railroad bridge slow to open,” says “a strong tide” drives “the barge into the fenders of both bridges.”
1980s. I recall how the sun catches the side of the train as it courses across the river, all golden like ancient memories, thunderous hot but cool blue in recollection. Even the brilliant gold fades to azure. Hard to believe I’ve not mentioned the steel lace vertical lift bridge, the Acosta, built in 1921, preceding its newer concrete namesake. Joe Fennell knows the Acosta. The two steel bridges leg along the water like arachnid twins. They speak to one another, humming in the heat like power lines. From the river, when the railroad rises, you look through four distinct steel lacework spans – the Florida East Coast Railway, the Acosta, the Alsop or Main Street Bridge, the Hart – to the sky ever receding over oaks and cedars and pines.
Just then, two 400 horsepower electric motors operate the bridge, controls for lowering the railroad from skyward “operated by computer” from more than 100 miles away. The future’s come to the past, always would, always has.
The bridge simulates life, thunderous lizard, but it falls, particle by cell by molecule, into the river that predates it by 100,000 years. Even the river’s but a new hookworm in the 4.5 billion year old earth.
Extinct mythologies recall themselves. Remember that golden afternoon, scum on skin, your hair so soft around my fingers, maybe just a moment, but those moments you remember all your life stand in for those lifetimes you’ve forgotten.