Hundreds pass by what may be the most expensive house per square foot on Wrightsville Beach every day without a second’s notice. While the newly renovated Heide Trask Drawbridge control house may not illicit many double takes, the now state-of-the-art facility controls the lifeline to Wrightsville Beach.
Renovated for more than $650,000 as a state-funded component of the complete renovation of the historic drawbridge, the two-story control house was built on the footprint of the former structure.
Drawbridge controllers like Chuck Crawford are now able to sit behind a brightly colored panel of buttons, switches and knobs all while observing everything on and around the bridge high above the traffic.
Crawford is one of the four bridge operators in Wrightsville Beach and has supervised the two spans of the Heide Trask Drawbridge as they open and close for five years. Spending countless eight-hour shifts operating the bridge has provided him an intimate knowledge of its mechanical functions, and the droning thump thump of cars crossing onto the drawbridge’s steel grating has faded into the background.
“It is just like a brother or sister; you know every nuance with this bridge,” Crawford said. “After a while you just don’t really hear that any more. Probably the most annoying sound is the garbage trucks flying through here early in the morning … that spooks you a little.”
Crawford, 66, became a bridge tender 10 years ago after retiring from two different jobs and said it has proven to be a good fit for someone his age. However, there are a number of things he has to keep an eye on every time he opens and closes the bridge on the hour.
“It is a laid-back job but you just have to be very alert,” he said. “You have to make sure you are aware of everything that is going on and what is happening around you. You have a lot of pedestrians on this bridge too so you are not only watching the cars but you are watching the pedestrians and boat traffic, too.”
While they are usually uncommon, Crawford said the biggest things he has to watch for when opening or closing the bridge are cars not stopping for the traffic gates, pedestrians walking too close to the edge of the bridge spans and the occasional late-night wanderers. One night Crawford watched an inebriated pedestrian attempt to take a nap in the middle of the bridge.
“I had to run out there with my orange vest to get the oncoming traffic to stop,” he said.
Like clockwork the drawbridge opens every hour on the hour and on demand for commercial vessels. Each time Crawford follows his steps: stops traffic, blasts the warning siren five times, looks again to make sure no one is in the way, opens the bridge, lowers the bridge, raises the gates and turns the traffic signals back to green.
The renovations of the control house have significantly upgraded the bridge controller’s visibility, and the ease with which he can operate the bridge and close it quickly in emergency situations.
However, the renovations did not come without a few stressful moments for the controllers having to worry about the construction crews working on and underneath the bridge.
“It was a wild ride,” Crawford said. “When you have 15-20 people working under the bridge and all kinds of construction up top without enough radios we really had to work out a system.”
The entire restoration of the Heide Trask Drawbridge cost $7.9 million and included a complete overhaul of the bridge’s gears and operating system.
North Carolina Department of Transportation resident engineer Wanda James said the funding used to keep the circa-1957 drawbridge functional was much cheaper than building a new bridge.
“I can’t count how many times someone has asked when we are going to build a new bridge because they think it is so easy,” James said. “Everyone says $7.9 million is a lot of money and it is, but not if we can keep this bridge running for another 40 years.”