VALLEJO — A radio message meant a burst of activity for Bob Evans in his metal office, three flights of stairs above the Mare Island Causeway bridge roadway.
“Two loaded scows about 3½ minutes out,” the radio voice said. “Have a pretty good current on my stern now.”
The drawbridge connecting Vallejo with Mare Island, officially called the Ernest Wichels Causeway, needed to be raised. Evans stood before a three-decade-old metal control panel covered with buttons. He pushed some to get the warning lights and crossing arms on the bridge activated.
Finally, with auto and pedestrian traffic stopped, he pushed the lever that lifts the bridge. The roadway started rising until its striped lanes were just outside of Evans’ window – having risen those three flights of stairs – then passed above it. The waters of Mare Island Strait rushed by below, visible in the gap of the bridge.
That left plenty of room for the tugboat Sarah Reed to pass under the bridge pushing two rusty scows with water and dredge spoils from a project on the Napa River in Napa. Then Evans lowered the roadway and traffic resumed moving on the bridge. The entire event took only a few minutes.
The Wichels Causeway is one of three large drawbridges in Solano County. The others are the Rio Vista Bridge over the Sacramento River and Union Pacific bridge over the Carquinez Strait.
Drawbridges are in one sense relics from another era, when Solano County had less traffic and people had more time. Even a drawbridge in good, structural shape that works just fine can wear out its welcome, as far as some people are concerned.
Evans sees these dissenters. Some motorists try to make it over the bridge even though the red lights are flashing. Some, angry at getting stopped by the crossing arms, show their displeasure by gesturing.
“You can’t let the little things get to you,” Evans said. “I just wave to them and do my job.”
Evans used to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. He’s been a drawbridge operator for 17 years. Vallejo is responsible for the bridge and has two drawbridge operators, each of whom works a separate 10-hour shift and is then on call at night.
“Unsung heroes” is what Vallejo Traffic Supervisor Thomas Wright calls them.
There can be long expanses of time when nothing is happening for the drawbridge operator, when no sailboat or tugboat needs to pass under the bridge. Then suddenly, it’s time to raise the bridge again.
A drawbridge operator must have patience, Evans said.
Even when the bridge is rising, it is fairly quiet inside his office. The electric motors are housed in the bridge towers far above. No earplugs required, as Wright puts it.
Lowering the bridge causes some noise and a little shaking at the moment when the roadway settles back into place.
Vallejo in 2012 had to lift the drawbridge 1,172 times. It uses a contractor to perform monthly maintenance to keep the bridge operating. It has a 250-kilowatt diesel generator that provides backup power in case of a power outage.
The bridge was built by the Navy to serve Mare Island Naval Shipyard. But the shipyard closed in 1996.
“We inherited Mare Island,” city Assistant Maintenance Supervisor Mike Schreiner said. “We inherited the bridge.”
Among the bridge’s striking features is its twin blue metal towers. Wright called the color “Pontiac blue,” though it has faded over time and has a greenish hue to it. Near the drawbridge operator office, a sheltered stretch of metal shows the original, slightly deeper blue color.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard opened in 1854 and for its first 65 years could be reached only by ferry. Workers, supplies and anything else bound for the island from Vallejo came by boat. That included something as mundane as an order for a basket of groceries.
Almost from the beginning of Mare Island Naval Shipyard, proposals circulated to change this situation, Arnold Lott wrote in his 1954 Mare Island history, “A Long Line of Ships.” As early as 1870, engineers wanted to build a platoon bridge.
The Los Angeles Herald reported on Nov. 5, 1909, that the Navy sought to construct a million-dollar causeway to connect Mare Island with Vallejo. The agency would submit plans to Congress in the next session to get funding.
But the project took almost another decade to come about. The Navy in 1918 started building a $500,000 causeway from Tennessee Street in Vallejo to the island, with a drawbridge to accommodate ship traffic on Mare Island Strait. It completed the bridge in the summer of 1919, with an opening celebration on July 3, 1919.
“Mare Island’s isolated character was changed radically and forever,” said the papers that successfully nominated Mare Island for the National Register of Historic Places.
The change was for good and bad.
“Now, cars commenced rolling on to the island every morning and with them came problems – where to park? How to control speed?” Lott wrote. “Within a month, the commandant had to announce that if homeward-bound workmen didn’t slow down going through the yard, all cars would be banned.”
The lazy days of ferries and horses had gone for good for Mare Island. This original, wooden causeway couldn’t handle the growing auto traffic loads within 15 years.
In 1935, a concrete drawbridge replaced the 1919 version. It had three lanes, with room for traffic heading either direction and a rail line down the middle. It came at a time when workers used dredge spoils as fill and dug channels to virtually double the size of Mare Island. Within a few years, World War II would bring a new influx of workers to the naval shipyard, making the bigger, better bridge even more useful.
Schreiner grew up in Vallejo. He remembers this 1935 bridge as being lower to the water.
Wright worked on Mare Island and also remembers the second bridge. It was replaced with the present version in 1980.
“It was dilapidated,” Wright said. “They built this one along beside it.”
The Mare Island Causeway on Dec. 2, 2002, was named after local historian Ernest Wichels, who died in 1989. Wichels was present at the dedications of the 1919, 1935 and 1980 versions of the causeway and spoke at the 1980 dedication, Sue Lemmon wrote in her 2001 book, “Closure: The final 20 Years of Mare Island Naval Shipyard.”
Today, the fact that the causeway is a drawbridge sometimes factors into the planning Vallejo is doing as it seeks to redevelop Mare Island with homes and businesses.
For example, the city is looking at a development plan for the north side of the island. One possibility mentioned in a July city report is establishing a port. A port on this side of the island would mean raising the drawbridge more often.
But motorists can travel between Mare Island and the mainland without using the drawbridge, though they might have to go a couple of miles out of their way. Busy Highway 37 crosses the Mare Island Strait with a bridge high enough to accommodate the ship traffic and has an exit to the northernmost side of the island.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.