Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favorite Blizzard

During the mid 1970's I worked for a local, loop railroad line that ran around Toledo, Ohio. It had a few engines that transferred cars to industrial locations, but much of the traffic was other lines, Amtrak, B&O, C&O, who were licensed to use the track, because, the Toledo Terminal Railroad owned and operated 3 major bridges across the Maumee River. 
I was a drawbridge and signal operator for the Lower Maumee Bridge. The first bridge across the river as ships approached the port of Toledo from Lake Erie at the mouth of the river. As it was the first bridge, it was the busiest. 
My little home away from home was the bridge house, nestled up in the iron girders in the middle of the river. I worked the night shift, from 11 pm until 7 am. Being low man on the totem pole, I also was the guy who got to work holidays. I didn't complain, it was what we called Double Eagle Overtime!
Don't ask me when I slept, I was a student at the University of Toledo School of Design and tried to have a reasonable facsimile of a social life at the same time.
The Bridge was a fascinating place to work. It is a national historic site, built in 1902. Part of my duties were to rev up the huge antique Bucyrus Erie diesel engine once a month and test the emergency DC electrical power generating system. I usually did this about 4 am in the morning and I have been told that you could hear the results up to the Michigan border.
I quickly over came any fears about hight...I had to climb the girder works in the dark to change lightbulbs when ever the Coast Guard would gleefully call at 2 am to tell me that a warning light was out on the top of the bridge. 
It was a routine, I opened and closed the bridge using ancient DC Current crank switches that would occasionally arc from snags on the sliding copper plates and light the bridge house up like Dr. Frankensteins laboratory. In the summer, I would ride my bike to work, but usually in the winter, I drove my Toyota pickup. The bridge and the iron work became a major source for the inspiration of my aspirations to become a master of intaglio printmaking techniques. I actually did a small edition of very large drypoint (the image is directly drawn with a steel point on a zinc sheet, then inked and printed...usually each print is very different because of the burr on the metal and the inking) prints of the bridge iron work, using my truck as the press...
On January 28, 1978, I was getting ready to leave work. I had a radio and listened to the warnings of about a big snow event scheduled to hit during the day. I waited for my relief to arrive. It was bridge operator etiquette to arrive a few minutes early and shoot the shit...
But my relief was late, and of course, a drawbridge operator bound is by federal law to stay on duty until his relief showed up!
It wasn't that cold and actually pretty clear, but as I looked up river, into the west, I saw a wall of clouds rapidly advancing. In fact, they weren't just advancing...as I watched I saw what appeared to be a wall of white steam racing down river...In just a few minutes, the bridge began to shake and I was engulfed in the steam! The steam was caused by a super frigid wall of air in contact with the still liquid Maumee River. I was engulfed in a violent, blinding, because the sun was till shining bright,  cloud of brilliant white steam for at least 15 minutes. The force of the wind blew the screen door off of the frame and the unconnected spare propane tanks into the opaque void....The bridge shook for 25 minutes and the railroad communication system was squealing away with panic filled voices from the other signal towers down the line. 
The initial wind roared through and was replaced with intense totally opaque sheets of wind driven snow....which kept falling, and falling and falling.
Finally, my phone rang and it was the chief engineer of the railroad asking me if I was okay....
I told him that I was just fine, the bridge was still there but the extra propane tanks, which in case you wanted to know, operated the "propane toilet", and the screen door and I couldn't say what else had gotten blown into Maumee Bay.
It was 24 hours before they could get a snow plow train to clear out to the bridge.  Almost 3 feet of snow had fallen in less than 4 hours. I was stuck there for 3 fun filled days, but I did call the Coast Guard occasionally to let them know I was going to try to walk to Summit Street to see if the McDonald's was open....
(If you click on the picture, you can enlarge it and see the bridge house)

1 comment:

squatlo said...

GREAT POST! That would have been exactly the job for me, except for the climbing part... I don't like being this tall, actually.
But just for the unique nature of the job, and the solitude? Perfect.
Really glad you posted the picture and took the time to tell the tale of the steam/storm!