Ups & Downs
A day in the life at Knapps Narrows, the busiest drawbridge in the nation.

By Steve Bailey
Photographs by Kirsten Beckerman

Knapps NarrowsIt’s still dark at 5:45 a.m. as George Pigge, walking with a cane, makes his way up a sloping sidewalk and up a flight of steps to the drawbridge tender’s house at Knapps Narrows. At the top of the stairs, he throws open the door and shouts “Wake up!” at Jim Rhine, whose 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift is ending. Rhine, who was wide awake, gets out of a lounge chair and starts collecting his things. The movie “Erin Brockovich” is on satellite TV.

It had been a “pretty quiet” night, Rhine says, meaning he didn’t have to raise the bridge very many times. In a minute or two, he’s heading up Route 33 to his home in Claiborne. Pigge puts down the books and containers of food that will keep him going for his 12-hour shift and surveys the room from which the drawbridge, the busiest in the country, is operated. In 2009, it was raised 10,276 times, nearly double the number of No. 2, Seattle’s Freemont Bridge. When the moveable span is down, the bridge is a 71-foot-8-inch link between Tilghman Island and the southern tip of the Bay Hundred Peninsula in Talbot County. When it’s up, there’s a navigable channel about 42 feet wide for sailboats and other craft.

The room is about 200 square feet. Its windows on three walls overlook the road, the bridge, and both east and west on Knapps Narrows. The bridge control panel, full of buttons, switches and lights, is beneath the north-facing windows. There are a large television, a microwave, a toaster oven, two coffeemakers, a sofa, a table, a reclining lounge chair, and a couple of other chairs. It feels like a really, really nice treehouse.  Unlike the tender’s house at the Miles River Bridge on Unionville Road, this one has an indoor toilet. All this and $8.81 an hour, too.

“I enjoy the job here, I really do,” Pigge says, “but you couldn’t live off it unless you were retired.”

George PiggePigge, 69, was a dispatcher for a large construction company in Northern Virginia before he retired and moved to Hurlock on the Eastern Shore. He began his bridge-tending career on April Fools’ Day 2008, at the Miles River Bridge. Since September 2009, he has been commuting 38 miles each way on the two or three days he works at Knapps Narrows every week.

At 6:28 a.m., a voice on the radio asks for a lift. Pigge first presses a button that changes the bridge’s traffic lights to red and sets off clanging bells. Another button lowers the wooden gates, and another lowers the metal barrier on the side where the gap will be when the bridge is up. A fourth button raises the bridge itself. The boat, High Hopes II, makes its way through, going toward the Bay.

The eastern sky starts brightening, but on this overcast day there is no brilliant sunrise over the broad waters where Harris Creek meets the Choptank River. Pigge settles into the lounge chair, rising with each boat that wants the bridge raised. The Terrapin, which carries workers as well as the visiting public between the Poplar Island restoration project and the project’s land base on Tilghman, goes out and back a couple of times during the morning and may very well spur more lifts than any other single boat.

By 11:15 a.m., the TV has changed to the Fox News Channel—“Thank God for television and air conditioning,” Pigge says of the job—and the bridge already has been raised 18 times, but only once for a sailboat.“We have some weather coming in,” Pigge says. A day with fewer dark clouds would see more sailboats. “Rag haulers, I call them.”

Knapps NarrowsThe bridge tender keeps a log of all the boats that ask for a lift as well as the direction each is traveling. The tender also has to keep a count of the cars that wait on each side every time the bridge is up. “It’s not a lot of work,” says Carole V. Wood, the lone woman working at the Tilghman bridge. “I saw the job advertised in the Star Democrat and told my husband,” she says. “He got the job and came home and says, ‘It’s so easy, you can do it,’ so after a few months I applied.”

She did work two days a week, but lately she works only one. Her husband, Sam, a former vice president of a bank in New York, works three overnight shifts.

The job may be simple and low paying, but it holds an attraction for the half-dozen retirees who cover the 14 shifts each week. “We don’t live on the water,” she says, “so we get our water views here. I really enjoy it in the winter.”

“It’s home,” says her husband, Sam, “a great waterfront location. I’ve gotten to know many of the boaters in terms of recognizing the boat names or their voices.”

Sam points out that a big diesel generator, which is beneath the tender’s house and keeps the bridge operating during power failures, means that “it’s sometimes the only place you can watch TV.”

“What’s your clearance?” a boater asks at 11:33 a.m., his voice loud over the radio. “Looks like 11 foot,” Pigge replies after looking across the Narrows to the gauge on the other side.

“Don’t think I can make it,” the boater comes back. “Can I have an opening, please?” The boat, a sport fishing boat from Leesburg, Va., called We Did It Again, passes through toward the Choptank.

“I’m a 40-foot sailboat westbound, approaching the Narrows,” another boater radios. It’s a Hinckley with a blue hull. “Pretty,” Pigge says. 

Clouds on the western horizon are getting darker and the wind is picking up, but the boats still come. The trawler Kismet from Kent Island also goes through toward the Chesapeake.

During a quiet spell, Pigge turns away from the TV to tell a story. “All the monkeys ain’t in the zoo,” he says.  “One day I was closing the bridge, had it almost down, and a dirt biker from the north ran the gate and—the bridge was still up about a foot—jumped it, somehow got the bike up and over the barricade and then slid it under the gate, all without getting off the bike. He was gone down the island. As soon as the gates were up, a state trooper raced through, trying to catch him. He hid somewhere,” Pigge says. “Everybody down here knew who it was.”

Pigge’s second story is simpler: “Had one boat coming through; had a guy and three girls. They stopped near the bridge and waved. I waved back and the girls all raised their tops. I waved back again. What could I do?”

The bridge—called a bascule bridge, meaning that a counterweight is used to balance the weight of the bridge itself—opened in 1998 and replaced a smaller and lower 1934 bascule bridge that was just to the west of the current one. That earlier bridge, which now marks the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, had replaced a different type of operable bridge. One bridge or another has spanned Knapps Narrows since the 1840s.

The current bridge is one of 18 state-maintained drawbridges in Maryland; all are operated by contractors hired by the state. The three bridges in Talbot County—Tilghman, the Miles River Bridge, and the Dover Road Bridge over the Choptank that connects Talbot and Caroline Counties— are all operated by M and R Manage-ment in Kennedyville. Mike Lesniowski, a co-owner of M and R, says that when the company recently advertised an opening for a bridge tender, applications were sent out to only the first 50 of more than 100 callers.

Glenn Beck is on TV, but Pigge isn’t paying much attention as his day winds down. He says that 40 lifts and 58 boats make it a fairly active day, especially considering the wet weather. In fact, it’s coming down pretty hard when Sam Wood, wearing a rain poncho, shows up at 5:45 p.m. for his overnight shift.  Pigge gathers his stuff, which doesn’t include an umbrella, and is preparing to leave when Wood offers him his rain poncho. The loan won’t be for long; Pigge will bring it back in 12 hours when Wood ends his shift and Pigge starts another.

Steve Bailey, a former editor with The New York Times, lives on Tilghman Island.