It is 9:20 a.m., low tide, and a mild breeze is blowing across the Lagoon Pond drawbridge. Light from the eastern sky skips across the pond until it reaches the bridge's shadow, which darkens the outer harbor. The hum of the drawspan, which vibrates with traffic, has stopped. There is only the water below, lapping against the timber spiles.
Traffic this morning has been rerouted so MassHighway engineers can repair some of the bridge's structural steel.
"They're going to make it so it works damn smooth for a long time," says bridge tender Robert Maciel, who has been in charge of the bridge for more than 20 years.
The workmen have parked in the middle of the road, on the border between Tisbury and Oak Bluffs. Mr. Maciel watches them transfer equipment from one truck to another. "This is the best crew I've seen. You tell them your problem, they listen, they come right down.
"I like to keep it running smooth," he says again. Then adds: "But I guess all good things must come to an end."
"Just like a relationship," says one engineer.
Twenty minutes earlier, Mr. Maciel had raised the bridge to let a boat into the Lagoon. At this time of year he only opens it with 24-hour notice. The summer schedule calls for openings three times daily.
Mr. Maciel, who is 64, runs the bridge from inside a shack that barely has room for two. An orange cone and life preserver take up the far corner. On the wall, to the left of the doorway, is a gray control box. Its 30 buttons and lights have labels like "barrier gate stop," "end lock pull" and "traffic light to green."
Mr. Maciel switches the traffic light to red, then turns on the warning siren. A car speeds by, and he shakes his head: "I hope the police get him."
The drawbridge is powered by a three-phase electric motor driving a hydraulic system. The motor sits in a wooden box underneath the shack but is run from inside using rheostatic controls that allow the tender to regulate how fast the drawspan moves.
Mr. Maciel undoes the pin that locks the bridge in place. "It used to jump up, maybe four inches, when the cars went over it," he says. "So the state installed this pin that slides through like a bolt and keeps everything shut tight."
At first there is only a quiet whirring. Then comes the tired creak of metal as the drawspan lifts from the Tisbury side.
The tide, low and rushing, causes the sloop to approach faster than it should. "Take it easy," Mr. Maciel says into his radio. "This thing takes a while to come up. I'll let you know when you're clear to come through."
The draw stops at an angle close to 90 degrees. Mr. Maciel overrides the system to squeeze out a few more vertical inches. When the boat finally slips through the channel it comes so close to the Oak Bluffs side that the pilot must spin the wheel to correct course.
"Putting the bridge down is trickier," Mr. Maciel says afterward. "It doesn't stop automatically. You have a pad on the bottom and a pad on the top, and you have to try to land it absolutely perfectly."
For much of the 19th century, there was no land connection between Vineyard Haven and Eastville (what was to be Oak Bluffs) except the long and indirect old Edgartown Road. But as Tisbury residents watched the Camp Ground grow and business boom, they became eager for a direct link to that part of the Island.
Edgartown residents did not want to pay any share of a bridge that would benefit a rival town. But in March 1871, after a prolonged political struggle, the first Lagoon bridge was completed. It was built by the county under an enabling act of the legislature on the condition that Tisbury pay two-thirds of the cost.
The present bridge, a combination of woodwork, cement and steel, was finished in 1935. It can accommodate boats up to 28 feet in width and has a 14-foot vertical clearance at high tide, after which the bridge tender must open the draw. The cost, half of which was picked up by the county, was nearly $95,000.
The 30-foot drawspan features Irving decking, the first time the mesh steel grating (a lighter, skid-proof material that prevents the accumulation of ice and snow) was used in the state. Walter I. Irving, president of Irving Subway Grating Co., even visited the Island to inspect the deck in 1956. He pronounced that the bridge should be good for another 40 years at least.
Today the bridge's green railings drip with rust, as do the cement posts that support it. The road on either side of the draw is cracked, the result of the bridge shifting on its timber spiles.
The sloped approach to the bridge tender's shack from Eastville Beach has been covered with cement to discourage children from hanging from the girders of the bridge and trying to hitch a ride as the draw opens.
The summer heat often causes the deck to expand, forcing workers to shave off several inches of metal before it can close. In 1988, lightning struck during an afternoon storm. The electrical wiring was fused, and the bridge was stuck in the closed position for several days.
Just last winter the piles, which loosen as traffic passes overhead, were reinforced to stabilize the bridge. The last traffic reading, in June 1999, counted an average of 15,000 cars a day. But Mr. Maciel says heavy trucks are the worst offenders; they blow by the signs that post the weight limits: 24 tons for trailer trucks, 15 tons for box trucks and 12 tons for small trucks.
"When the trucks go over, she groans something wicked, which tells me they're too heavy," says Mr. Maciel. "It took 12 years for me to get the state to put up signs about that, and people still don't pay any attention to it.
"I flagged one truck down the other day, and told him, ‘You almost went through that bridge.' The whole thing was shaking," he adds.
Islanders are taking another look at the bridge now that MassHighway has unveiled a design for its temporary and permanent replacements. It is one of nine movable bridges in the state under their supervision.
The workers tell Mr. Maciel it's time. They wait on the Oak Bluffs side while he opens the bridge about six feet, enough for them to climb down to the cement lip on which five steel plates are welded. They are roughly 10 inches square by three-quarters of an inch thick, and when the bridge closes, each matches up to a plate on the underside of the draw. Two were replaced last month.
One of the workmen sets up a ladder so they can cross the gap. "Stairway to heaven," he says.
Mr. Maciel climbs down. He will leave - he also drives a bus for Vineyard Transit Authority - but he will be available. They have his home phone number and his cell phone number and they can radio him. And he might call to check in.
"After 20 years, it's like having another kid," he says.