Editorial: Lift bridges should be celebrated, not scorned

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 3 February 2023 at 12:29 pm

“Welcome to Orleans County – the lift bridge capital of the Erie Canal!”

Photos by Tom Rivers: The Main Street lift bridge in Albion is elevated in this photo from Aug. 8, 2022, making room for boaters to pass through.

Orleans County has a secret: It has the most lift bridges of any county on the canal system. We have seven out of the 16.

It’s not something you’ll see on a tourism brochure, a welcome sign or on a local municipal website.

Around here, we treat the lift bridges with annoyance. We don’t like to wait a few minutes when a boat passes by and the 200,000-pound plus bridges rise to give the boaters some room.

The lift bridges are a marvel. I’ve seen visitors drop what they are doing and get very excited when they have been in downtown Albion and the bridge seems to let out a groan and start its elevation. It’s a sight that amazes out-of-towners.

The lift bridges were all built in the 1910s with the canal’s widening and expansion. The downtown districts and hamlets were already built up near the bridges. It wasn’t reasonable to knock down the commercial buildings close by to push back the bridge approaches and make gradual inclines for a stationary high bridge like out in the country.

So we got seven vertical lift bridges – in Medina, Knowlesville, Eagle Harbor, two in Albion, Hulberton and Holley.

The 16 lift bridges on the Erie Canal are all on the western side. Besides the seven in Orleans, there are four in Niagara County and five in Monroe.

The four in Niagara include two in Lockport, and one in both Gasport and Middleport. The five in Monroe include two in Brockport, with others in Adams Basin, Spencerport and Fairport.

The Tugboat Syracuse carries engineers and Canal Corp. officials in this photo from Sept. 14, 2016 during an inspection of the canal system in Orleans County today. The tug is approaching the Ingersoll Street lift bridge in Albion.

We have the most of these bridges and that distinction should be proclaimed: “Welcome to Orleans County – the lift bridge capital of the Erie Canal!”

Orleans County will be 200 years old in 2025. That year also marks the 200th anniversary of the completion of the original 363-mile long Erie Canal.

Orleans County doesn’t need to wait two years to celebrate the lift bridges. The county should dip into some of its tourism money to put up engaging signs and craft a campaign about these bridges.

The entire community should rally around them as a source of pride.

Next year a massive rehabilitation of the Main Street lift bridge in Albion will be complete. The state Department of Transportation is spending about $15 million to give the bridge a major overhaul. That will ensure the bridge stays functional for decades to come. The state about 15 years ago finished a similar rehab of the Ingersoll Street lift bridge in Albion, costing several million dollars.

The state is showing a commitment to keep these bridges in good shape. There are times when some of them are shut down a few days or weeks for a repair. But the bridges get the job done, year after year – more than a century after they were originally constructed.

Photo by Philip Kamrass, New York Power Authority: Fairport lights up its lift bridge and celebrates the span as an iconic landmark in the community.

The Village of Fairport seems to be the only canal town that takes pride in having a lift bridge. The village in Monroe County proudly displays the lift bridge on signs and in promotional materials about the community.

It lights up the bridge for major events. It had a big celebration in 2014 when the bridge was 100 years old. There were a series of events that summer to celebrate the centennial. Fairport rededicated the bridge in a ceremony on Aug. 15, 2014, and re-enacted the first motorized vehicle riding across the bridge. Fairport had a Model T do it for the ceremony.

The community hosts a bash every year to kick off the canal boating season. You can feel their pride.

Not so much around here when it comes to the canal, the lift bridges and tugboats that seem so obvious to celebrate and build an identity around.

In Iowa, the Bridges of Madison County are deeply valued and part of the community fabric. Those historic covered bridges fill that community’s tourism promotions and were the backdrop of a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in 1995.

Madison County used to have 19 of the covered bridges, but only six remain today. They are deeply treasured by local residents. The community has a covered bridge festival each year. This year it will be Oct. 14-15. (Click here to see more from the Madison County Chamber & Welcome Center.)

Ashtabula County in Ohio has a line of merchandise highlighting its covered bridges, including these hoodies. (Images from Ashtabula County Bridge Festival.)

Ashtabula County in Ohio may be the most enthusiastic community when it comes to loving and embracing their historic bridges.

Ashtabula County has had a covered bridge festival every year going back about 40 years. The community has activities at 19 different covered bridges on an October weekend. Service clubs, businesses, churches and other groups adopt a bridge for the weekend and host events.

Some of the activities include a troll costume contest, Lego covered bridge contest, horse-drawn wagon rides and lemonade stands run by Girl Scouts. Click here to see more about their festival.

The community sells and displays numerous covered bridge merchandise and signage, with different covered bridges featured on shirts, ornaments, blankets, totes and bags, hoodies, cards and other items.

The local lift bridges have paths for pedestrians, including the one on Main Street in Albion. This is an older photo because the bridge has currently been removed for a massive rehabilitation.

You could see an Orleans County Lift Bridge Festival on a weekend, perhaps in late August while there are still boaters using the canal before the end of the summer.

We could have activities at the seven bridges. I could see a 5K race or walk perhaps from the Eagle Harbor to Albion bridge, or from Hulberton to Holley. There could a 10-mile race for more ambitious runners going from Medina to Albion, or Albion to Holley. There could even be a Lift Bridge marathon for 26.2 miles that would go just about from one end of the county to the other.

I think most people would like to see the bridges in action. Every half hour there should be a commitment to have the bridges go up in lower-trafficked areas such as Hulberton, Eagle Harbor and maybe Ingersoll Street in Albion once the Main Street bridge is open. That way people would be guaranteed to see the bridges in action and not have to try to time it to boating traffic.

We could develop some merchandise and signage to give the lift bridges some limelight.

The festival could culminate with fireworks near one of the bridges.

A lift bridge festival would give the service clubs, fire departments, municipalities and residents in the canal communities an opportunity to work together on a fun-filled weekend for the community, while also welcoming visitors to learn about and experience our lift bridge treasures.

Bill Lattin, the retired Orleans County historian, spoke during the first Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the Medina Sandstone Society back in 2013. Lattin said then that Orleans County has so many ornate Medina Sandstone churches, houses, monuments and other structures for such a small community. Yet, the locals don’t pay much notice to what Lattin called “the extraordinary ordinary.” He could say the same about the lift bridges.

Fireworks are reflected in the Erie Canal by the lift bridge in Holley at about 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, 2018. The 20-minute fireworks show was an explosive conclusion to the June Fest celebration in Holley.