Bob Maciel: Keeper of the Bridge
This time of year those of us who have the responsibility of a boat that clears more than 12 feet off the water are especially glad for the friendly voice that responds to calls on Channel 16 to the Lagoon Pond Bridge tender: "Vessel calling, let's switch to channel 69," comes the reply.
If you are familiar to the distinctions, you know that you are conversing with either Bob Maciel or Earl "The Pearl" Littlefield. Either way, the tone being delivered in a New England accent conjures a smiling helpful visage. If needed, you will be talked right through the opening.
For the best part of three decades Bob Maciel has been opening the bridge every day of the year in all kinds of weather. He was working at Burt's Boatyard in the Lagoon when he inherited the responsibility from the overworked Tisbury town mechanic Angelo Torres. When a boat needed to be brought through, Bob would call Angelo and sometimes have to wait up to four hours for him to raise bridge. It was not long before he learned how to operate the bridge himself. When Angelo retired, Bob got the contract to operate the bridge.
Eventually, Bob bought Burt's Boatyard and started Maciel Marine. He ran the small marina and boat maintenance facility while he and his wife Barbara raised five sons, who grew up in the business. For many years, Maciel Marine was the local mom-and-pop boatyard. Bob could be counted on to give good service, participate in local activities, fight fires with the volunteer fire department, and of course, open the bridge. Along the way Earl Littlefield was hired to fill in at the bridge, and he has worked the demanding schedule ever since.
The Lagoon was not always as we know it today. Originally, the entrance was through a channel called Bass River, which ran from where the Steamship Authority ferry landings are now, along what is Water Street, through Five Corners, and along Lagoon Pond Road to Maciel Marine. In the mid 1800s a bridge was built behind where Saltwater Café now stands.
Eventually, another channel was opened through a tidal sandy neck and a bridge built where the Lagoon Pond Bridge is today. The train ended at the bridge and a horse-drawn trolley met travelers from up-Island who wanted to attend church functions in Oak Bluffs.
As the steamship business grew in Vineyard Haven, Bass River was filled in and the Lagoon Pond access behind the eastern breakwater became the channel we know today.
The original bridge had one wide plank that was removed for boat traffic and the bridge tender would simply grab a hold on the masts of the boats and walk them through and across the bridge.
The Lagoon was always considered one of the best hurricane holes along this part of the coast, and as motorized boats came of age, it saw more and more traffic. The bridge, a rickety locally maintained affair, was constantly being modified to accommodate those seeking shelter.
In the early 1900s, Lagoon Pond was designated a Federal Anchorage Basin. Among other things this meant that access to the pond had to be granted at any time without fail. The onus for maintaining the waterway fell to the State, and the bridge took on a new dimension. The Massachusetts State Legislature mandated a bascule bridge be built with federal funding in 1932. Since that time, there has been a designated bridge tender to make sure the bridge was always ready to be opened on request.
This same bridge has seen the traffic go from occasional local travelers of the pre-war era through the post-war boom of summer inhabitants to the constant use it sees today. The bridge has accommodated billions of tons of traffic from larger and heavier trucks that its engineers could hardly have foreseen.
Over the years, the bridge has literally been squashed down so that every few years the opening span needs to be shortened to keep the bridge from jamming shut. That explains why, in the heat of summer, the bridge can only be raised early in the morning or late in the evening. As the roadbed heats up in the sun it expands and jams the bridge closed. By federal standards and the original mandate, this is unacceptable. The span cannot be shortened any further, so a new bridge is in the making.
Bob Maciel has been working on the bridge his whole life, taking personal responsibility for its maintenance and operation. The contract to operate the new bridge is still in the air, and when asked if he would be guiding the mariners seeking haven, Bob gives a wry smile. "We'll see," he says.
Talking with him, one gets the feeling that this is more than a job or even a relationship. He is not only the keeper of the bridge; he is the keeper of its history. He has seen the life of the bridge as a part of a bigger picture, one that is a piece of the Island home we share.
Seaver Jones, whose boat Crow Flight is moored in Vineyard Haven Harbor, writes the monthly column Breakwater News for The Times.