We who serve: Pretoria Bridge operator – Carl Downey

There are a few unique jobs in Ottawa like prime minister or captain of the Ottawa Senators. But for the last 30 years, Carl Downey has held a job that’s unique in North America. He and Bob Craig are the two operators of the Pretoria Bridge.

“It’s the only vertical lift in North America,” said Downey. “Now they are in England, but not in North
America. This is the only one of its type. You can stand on that deck out there and I can put the bridge up and you will stay right where you are.”

“The original build [of Pretoria Bridge] was 1917. It was one way [traffic] each way. The gates were
manual. In the fall of 1979 they [the National Capital Commission and Ottawa-Carleton] started the rebuild here. It was complete in the spring 1982–that’s when I started.” The new bridge changed to four lanes with mechanical movement.

Downey says the peak season is the beginning of August. The bridge operators are notified of coming boats by radio from the boaters themselves, or by phone from the Hartwell Locks to the south and Ottawa Locks to the north. “We lift 500 to 700 lifts a season for 1,000 boats. Most lifts are for two boats, up to nine boats. We try to get rid of as many as we can in one shot.”

He notes that there is more to their work then providing passageway to boaters. “It’s not so much
operating the bridge. It’s maintaining it, looking after it: electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, balance. You’ve got to be aware of the bridge’s balance all the time,” says Downey. “And just use good common sense.”

In 30 seasons of working the Pretoria Bridge, he remembers the summer of 1986. “When they built the Hunt Club Bridge, all that metal substructure was brought in from Dominion Bridge of Montreal by barge,” says Downey. The barge went through five times that summer carrying very large sections of bridge. “They were full lifts,” he remembers.

Watch the interview on Mainstreeter TV ()!  

Pretoria Bridge quick facts:

– The bridge shares its name with nearby Pretoria Avenue. Formerly Jane Street, Pretoria Avenue was renamed in 1902 to commemorate the British victory in the Boer War of South Africa. Canadians served in the war, including 191 volunteer soldiers from Ottawa, 12 of whom died. The name came from the captured Boer capital, Pretoria.
– The bridge replaced an earlier wooden swing bridge on Argyle Street just to the north.
– The bridge has maintained much of its original design and appearance, with much of the original stonework used during the rescontruction.
– The bridge can lift up to 16 feet, or 26 feet from the water, which is higher than the nearby Queensway (417). Most lifts are only 8 -10 feet, with only a couple of full lifts a season.
– From the time the operator switches the gongs, the complete up and down takes six to seven minutes. A full lift is 120 seconds up and 90 seconds down.
– Peak hour restrictions limiting boat access: Monday to Friday not before 9 a.m.; no lifts between 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.. Any times outside of this, including weekends, lifting is on demand.

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