Sacramento County operates five movable bridges in the Sacramento River Delta, four of which are staffed by bridge tenders. Opening and closing daily for boats to pass below, these bridges and their tenders are vital to the delta.
The four moveable bridges include two swing and two bascule bridges that are opened up when needed for ships passing up or down the river. The two swing bridges are situated on a center pivoting spot in the middle of the river. The bridge rotates on the center pivot, turning until it is parallel to the banks of the river. The bascule bridges, which are often referred to as draw bridges, open upwards, sticking straight into the air until each boat can pass.
The County’s five full-time bridge tenders and many other part time/seasonal tenders operate these bridges to ensure river traffic can maneuver the water as needed. Communicating with people on the boats and fellow tenders at nearby bridges, they cater to the needs of the boats and barges that have traveled the river for decades and ensure the bridges are functioning.
“It is important to remember that the waterways were there first, and our bridges were there second,” said Jeff Welchman, Highway Maintenance Supervisor. “If it comes between boats and traffic, the boats have the priority. Bridges allow cars and boats to coexist.”
Often, the tenders who operate the bridges live in the community that they work in. Many are retirees working to make a little extra income or keep busy. Lee McDonald, a Bridge Operator for Sacramento County, grew up on the river and says he enjoys the beauty of the water and not having to work in a busy city.
“It is peaceful out here and it is also nice to just meet all the different electricians, engineers and maintenance crews that come to the bridges,” said McDonald. “I get to meet a lot of people so each day is a little different.”
One of the bridges, the Snodgrass Slough Bridge, has a different story. The 85-year-old bridge on Twin Cuties Road—one of the oldest in the County—is still opened and closed by hand.
Strapped to the side of the bridge with safety harnesses, workers use a hydraulic jack to lift the bridge and move the wheels that hold it in place. Once everything is ready and the bridge is freed from its supports, workers use a giant “T” shaped key to turn the bridge from the center. Three workers stand on each side of the steel key and push, slowly turning the entire bridge clockwise. The bridge must be moved about every two years for Caltrans to inspect it for safety and functionality.
Waterways are vital to the Sacramento valley and industries as well as way of life. Whether large or small, each of the 242 bridges in Sacramento County are an essential part of transportation, agriculture and recreation network.
Sacramento County’s movable bridges:
• Freeport (Bascule)
• Walnut Grove (Bascule)
• Georgiana Slough (swing bridge)
• Tyler Island (swing bridge)
• Snodgrass Slough (hand crank bridge)