There’s a bridge that connects Burlington and Hamilton, spanning the entrance to Burlington Bay (better known as Hamilton Harbour - it’s always the important cities whose names stick to things). Rather long as single-span bridges go, the James M. Allen Skyway was once the longest bridge of its type in the world. The original span is a thing of antique beauty, and when Ontario’s infrastructure sell-off really gets going, I fully expect to see this bridge on the Antique Roadshow. The roadway rests on an intricate, steel-framed underbelly, supported by massive, arching, concrete piers that tower above the surrounding fields of grass like Roman triumphal arches must have along the via Appia at the peak of the Empire’s fortunes. The middle of the bridge is further supported by the graceful curves of a pair of arches that rise above the roadway on each side, and driving up it you feel almost like you’re about to become airborne, about to come free from the low-slung, binding, suburban quagmire around you, escaping into a clear, blue sky. This feeling lasts until you reach the crest, until you come crashing back down at the other end amid Hamilton’s industrial wasteland of steel mills and aggregate piles and dilapidated piers.
I can imagine how lonely this single span must have been in the early years after it was built; right now I am awash in the same pain it surely must have known for many years after its opening. Standing in this field, alone, feeling so different, so helplessly isolated from everything else. Its sole purpose to ensure the entrance and exit of ships into and out of the harbour. And occasionally, something would come out of the great expanses of lake, something that would make the bridge’s weathered heart skip a beat; a great, cargo-carrying sea vessel. This ship must have appeared to him a magnificent swan, so large that her feathered hull nearly brushed the sides of the narrow channel beneath the bridge, her holds packed with a load of iron or gravel or emptied in anticipation of a shipment of newly forged steel. And the bridge would marvel at this thing of beauty as she approached, her grace, her bearing. And for a few brief moments, as she swept beneath him, the bridge would feel at peace with the world, would feel wondrously complete. Yet, all too soon, the cargo ship would slide on into the harbour, leaving the bridge to his lonely watch post above the channel. While disheartened, the bridge would at least be able to gaze at this beautiful angel from a distance, as the cargo carrier sat at her berth in the harbour amid a frenzy of dockworker activity. Yet even this time of distant longing was fleeting, soon enough the day would come when this magical creature slid back out into the lake, headed for Detroit or Duluth or the St. Lawrence Seaway, leaving the bridge totally alone once again.
These brief encounters were the justification for the bridge’s existence, the purpose that kept him from being torn down and sold for scrap. Without this lake traffic, the bridge would undoubtedly be turned piecemeal into toaster ovens and Hydro towers and hull patches for these ships that would forever awe and torment him. The bridge knew all that, yet were the choice his to make, he would have gladly sacrificed his great, majestic span in the hope that even one piece of his structure might have filled a hole in one of the ships that passed him by.
The bridge sat for years at the harbour’s entrance, alone, his once gleaming structure slowly graying beneath the toll of wind and water and smog and ice. Until one year, a second span was placed beside him to meet increasing automobile traffic demands. The bridge finally felt complete, his long years of tragic, brooding emptiness were, if not erased, then at least reconciled with this newly-minted future, a space-age partner full of long, graceful, all-concrete curves. His sadness at being unable to convince any of those many graceful steel-carriers to stay with him had finally come to an end, an ending paradoxically derived from all those ships that had refused to stay, that had continued to ply the waters of the Great Lakes, that had continued to feed the burgeoning auto industry and made a second span a necessity according to the gods of transportation.
And I’m sitting here, beneath this contented bridge, and his story is my story, and I wish to God that I could be the bridge as he is now, not the bridge as he was, thirty sad, lonely years ago.