He Leadeth Me Over Still Waters

Up until about two weeks ago, Mike Byard was a daytime operator of the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge. Byard is one of three seasonal attendants who keep the bridge manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week until mid-October, when the Coast Guard restricts river traffic in anticipation of winter. The bridge, built in 1931, stays down until the spring. It’s a well-earned rest for bridge and operator alike. Byard typically lifted and lowered the bridge at least twelve times during his 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift.

Byard is fifty-four. He is a man of experience when it comes to machinery. Although this was his first season as a bridge tender, his three decades of operating heavy equipment for the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Spring Lake Park shop has given him the steadiest of hands. He is built close to the ground, his movements are deliberate, his eyes are alert, and he smokes constantly.

First, warning lights and gates were activated on both ends of the bridge as the traffic cleared the deck. Next, Byard eased forward a lever in the middle of a control panel and the 480-volt electric engine whined to life. The ride was surprisingly smooth. No great groans or cracking joints from the 72-year-old piece of machinery. The motor turns a drum beneath the bridge to wind massive cables that run through a series of pulleys and terminate at two 300,000-pound counterweights. When the counterweights go down, the 600,000-pound section of bridge goes up—along with Byard, the tender’s house, and, on this day, me.

A scale on the wall indicated how high we were going. “Today, the river was eleven feet below the deck, so add eleven onto that number—that’s how far above the water we are.” At the top of the lift, we were about forty feet above the water.

It was 2:30 p.m., and traffic was already building rapidly at both ends of the bridge, clogging downtown Stillwater and stacking up the hill on the Wisconsin side. Boats moved underneath. We began our descent. Going down can be tricky, Byard said, because some hot-rod boaters try to squeeze under at the last moment. “I can’t stop this real fast,” he said. “But I haven’t clobbered anyone yet.”

The tender’s house offers little in the way of comfort. The traffic rumbles past just a few inches away. The roughly four-by-eight-foot space bristles with circuit boxes and wiring harnesses. The windows don’t open; the only ventilation beyond a propped door is a tiny air conditioner with one setting—frigid.

We sat out on a small adjacent platform and watched the traffic. Some people waved, most wore expressions of annoyance. A decent breeze kept the exhaust fumes from becoming thick. Some days are certainly worse than others, Byard said. “But I’ve spent thirty-one years working with diesel equipment, so I’m probably half brain-dead anyway,” he joked. —Mike Mitchelson