In the Shadow of Change: Sunset Beach Bridge Tenders Start New Lives
Story By Claire Connelly
Photography By Suzy King
The little Sunset Beach pontoon bridge has been replaced by a high-rise bridge. This change affects many, including those who live on the island as well as visitors and boaters along the Intracoastal Waterway, but it most especially affects the former bridge tenders.
I recently stood next to a small boy and his father on one side of the bridge and listened to him ask: “Dad, is there anyone in that little bridge house? What do they do all day? I wonder if they are lonely.”
I was very much like that young boy, wondering about the bridge tenders and their work. With the time drawing near for the little house to take its last ride, it was time to try to find answers to those questions.
I learned that there were six bridge tenders working on the bridge in different shifts in the summer of 2010. I arranged to meet with two of them — Tom Hewett and Al Theimer.
Tom Hewett, at age 79, worked on the bridge for 25 years. Prior to coming to Sunset Beach, he did similar work at Ocean Isle and Holden Beach. He has many memories and finds it difficult to single out favorite ones, but the memory of a pick-up truck speeding past the barricades and ending up in the water is at the top of his list.
Most of his days were quiet and peaceful. There was no scheduled daily routine, but there were responsibilities — having to obtain the name of each boat coming through on the waterway and logging in the direction where they are headed.
The bridge opened on the hour, unless there weren’t any boats waiting to come through. It also opened for commercial traffic at any time. Hewett realized that he had an unusual job, perhaps one that many others have dreamed of and are curious about.
When discussing the new bridge, he firmly stated that “it is time for the new bridge.”
Hewett has a good sense of humor and a tell-it-like-it-is personality. When I asked about his future plans, his answer came quickly. He will sit back and enjoy the new sunroom that has just been built on his home, relaxing with his wife in the two new easy chairs and 52-inch television they have purchased.
Al Theimer was a bridge tender for almost seven years. He calls it the most enjoyable job he had in his entire life, one that was uncomplicated and one he always looks forward to. Shifts were rotated, but he preferred the midnight shift and the quietness of those hours. Theimer enjoys still-life painting for relaxation and hopes to do more of it after his work on the bridge ends this fall. He spoke about the beautiful wildlife around the bridge and how many photographs he has taken of the sunrises, always changing from day to day. Fishing is a favorite pastime, and he often came off the midnight shift and went directly to the pier to enjoy his fishing.
Like Hewett, Theimer mentioned that one of the most memorable bridge events for him was the accident that occurred when two men drove off the end of the bridge after bypassing the gates. There was also an incident where a barge struck the bridge, removing a portion of it. He feels fortunate that he was not in the bridge house that day.
Lightning storms were always a concern as the bridge tender’s house has been struck several times, along with the gates, stranding the house in its journey.
The longest vehicle-traffic interruption Theimer remembers was approximately 25 minutes during the heaviest boat traffic at the end of the season with many boaters returning home to Florida.
Theimer mentioned the many visitors who always lined the water’s edge while waiting for the bridge to reopen, enjoying the view and the operation of the little bridge house.
He also strongly feels that it is time for the new bridge. Memories of the little swing bridge will always be dear to many Sunset Beach residents and visitors, but he feels it is all about “progress.”
For Theimer, the time has come for more painting and more fishing and occasional travel to the Mount Airy area in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As for the new bridge, the time has come.
For those who were impatient with the little swing bridge and having to wait for its opening and closing before arriving at their vacation rental house, there will be delight with the new span.
For those who enjoyed getting out of their cars while waiting, and taking deep breaths of the fresh air after a long drive, there will be disappointment and longing for the return of the little bridge and that symbol of an unhurried lifestyle.
For the bridge tenders, there will be satisfaction that they did their jobs well and are able to say, “I did something different in my life and loved doing it.”
For the small boy who asked his father if they were lonely in that little house, the answer is, “No, never lonely, just in awe of everything around them.”