A Downtown ‘Main’ attraction

The catwalk above the span of the Main Street Bridge.

About three dozen steps above the span of the Main Street Bridge sits a small rectangular structure that houses one of Downtown Jacksonville’s most interesting stories.

Past the structure’s northward facing door, you’ll find a row of blue lockers, high-tech gadgets and buttons, television screens,¬†and – perched in their chairs – three smiling faces.

It’s the morning shift at the Main Street Bridge tender house, and bridge tenders Bryan, Dedra and Earnest are calm and relaxed as they chat about their job – moving tons of steel more than 80 feet into the air daily – as if it’s the easiest thing they do all week.

“We let the bridge up and down,” Earnest said, “and we’ve got the best view in town, day or night.”

Earnest has spent more than a decade – 12 years – above the span working for ISS, the contractor that operates the bridge for the Florida Department of Transportation. Bryan has been a bridge tender of the Main Street Bridge for six years, and Dedra has spent about four and a half years on the job. The bridge itself has spanned the St. Johns River since 1941.

“It does have its perks,” Bryan said of his job. “You get front-row seats to fireworks. It’s like you can just reach out and grab a firework.”

Earnest agrees.

“You have the opportunity to meet a lot of people, tourists from all over,” he said. “And just to see the view, it’s worth it.”

Bridge tenders Earnest, Dedra and Bryan
Bridge tenders Earnest, Dedra and Bryan

Every day, this morning crew watches the sun rise near EverBank Field from the tender house as they monitor water traffic for a need to raise the span. Here’s how it works: First, a boat captain or member of the Coast Guard makes a bridge-lift request by radio. Once FDOT is notified and the vessel’s arrival time at the bridge is determined, tenders clear the bridge of vehicular and pedestrian traffic aided by several traffic signs, signals and inspections.

Under the operation of the bridge tenders, the span of the bridge – including the tender house – is raised by the pressing of buttons to the appropriate height needed for the vessel to pass under the bridge safely. Once the vessel reaches a safe distance from the opposite side of the bridge, the tenders then lower the span back into place.

On a good day, this process takes about six minutes, explains Bryan, but given wind and tide conditions, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes on average from vehicular traffic stop to go. “Something a lot of people don’t know,” he said, “is boats have the right of way, not street traffic.”

Operating one of the main arteries into Downtown seems like a challenging task, but it isn’t to these pros. To them, it’s about doing their part to help sustain a Downtown architectural icon and symbol of our city.

“I think anyone who has worked on the span has been in more pictures than anyone else in Jacksonville,” said Dedra. “It’s cool because you become a part of history.”