Main Street Bridge

by Tim Gilmore, 7/30/2017

Because its franchise applied only to vehicles drawn by horses, not to carriages self-moving, mobiles auto-, the Florida Ferry Company could not build the bridge.

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

So the bridge piers piled down and deep into the riverbed when the ferries, condemned now, no longer could cross as they had for a century and a half.

The city’s second automobile bridge cost that last ferryman his livelihood. I wonder, with Allen Ginsberg, “what America did you have,” last ferryman, when you landed last on the riverbank, “and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?” Though tonight the river taxi ferries us back beneath the bridge, I feel no need for irony.

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

The first cars drove 1700 feet of Main Street over the St. Johns River in 1941.

By 1945, Jacksonville Police Chief Abel Roberts felt compelled to address the high rate of car accidents on the bridge. When it rained, cars slid all over the span. One shiny Ford seemed determined to drive up a steel girder into the sky. One passenger died.

circa 1960, courtesy State Archives of Florida,

I’d hardly the self-control not to ask Chief Abel about his brother Cain. The chief was no bridge keeper, as certainly Cain was not his brother’s.

So the police department imposed a 25 mph speed limit, planted electric signs to flash “Slippery When Wet” in the rain, and applied an adhesive putty to the metal grating.

Our dog could run the bridge in better time, preferring instead to sleep in our front window seat. I preferred him there too, but feared denying him his time and speed.

I remember one of my adolescent friends, when he jumped up the blue steel railing and shimmied the ladder toward the control room in the sky. Quarter century ago. He didn’t get far.

He didn’t make it to Nate Rogerson’s office 20 feet above the 30,000 cars that drove the bridge each day.

Nate was afraid of heights when first he took the job. My childhood friend only came back down when we threatened to leave him behind, way up there beside the moon, as we walked north down the bridge. If I were him, I might’ve stayed.

Rogerson raises and lowers the lift span in the middle of the bridge when a sailboat or tall cruise ship approaches to pass. His office rises 135 feet with the lifting of the center of the bridge.

In 2001, longtime Supervisor of Elections Harry Nearing died. He’d once piloted a plane beneath the bridge. Its clearance from the river is 35 feet.

In 2016, a cruise ship that called itself the American Star wedged itself under the bridge and closed Main Street, across the river, overnight.

I asked the daredevil pilots and ship captains to accompany us across the steel walkway that never stops shaking. I believed they had not the guts. No loss. We walk the constant steel rattling and arc over the river from one half of the city to the other and back. Elect us mayor. We raise up our hands, celebratory. We are home, either way and back, all Jacksonville, from anywhere in the world, we occupy sanctuary here. The Main Street Bridge is our Sanctuary City.

The artist Chip Southworth grew up near the Main Street Bridge, and the crossings of its blue steel beams marked his young mind alongside the abstract expressionist geometries of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline.

From these particular convergences emerged the limber radii and blue steel nexus spreadings-out-into that Chip paints. They come together and fly apart with the strength of invisible historical forces and the grace of the maps of personal relationships.

You and I, my so dear daughter, you, born on my mother’s, your grandmother’s, birthday, my mother who died 12 years before you were born, walked across this shaking bridge. The more it shook, the tighter you held my hand. Those many years ago. There was no better feeling in the world than holding your tiny hand.

You and I, my daughter, on whose birthday my mother was born, six decades and several years before you, held hands across the river. You were six already and I was only 30.

I pointed to tallest structures, motioned across the river, said nonsense about jazz, gibberish about poetry, told you you were special, which was gospel, and we ate tacos and ceviche in a Mexican restaurant by the water.

I think I hoped my walking with you, over the trembling bridge in the center of the city would, ipso and thereby facto, make some metaphor that might stick to your precious tiny growing bones, and show you how to love living in the middle of the world, since everywhere in the world is the middle.

But even at six years old, you looked at me with grace and intelligence and maturity that surpassed us both, which clearly you used to navigate our space together, the kindness between your eyes and mine, while I yet, with multiple stakes planted either in sand or in my heart, hoped the greatest love a father could inhabit for his child could ever be enough, that the glorious lights on the water that first determined this town might bring us so to the source, and we looked up to the moon in gentle hence- and, thereby also, for I would have fed you my heart, -forth. For I would have fed you my heart.