BELFAST — Belfast will be a divided city as long as the footbridge linking its east and west sides is allowed to remain closed.
That was the consensus of the more than 50 Belfast residents who engaged in some old-fashioned civil disobedience Sunday to protest the City Council’s decision to close the bridge. To awaken people to the plight of the old bridge, the group pushed aside the “No Trespassing” barriers and, to shouts of “Save our bridge,” defiantly marched across the 1,000-foot span.
The council voted late last year to close the bridge to the public after an underwater survey revealed a few of its support piers had deteriorated. When doing so, the council instructed City Manager Robert Keating to look for resources to save the bridge. So far, that search has been unsuccessful.
From its place on the city’s waterfront, the bridge has linked the east and west banks of the Passagassawakeag River for 75 years.
The narrow bridge served as U.S. Route 1 for much of that period. The state closed the bridge as a highway after replacing it with the much wider Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1963.
Since then it has largely been used by walkers, bicyclists and fishermen. It also served as a viaduct for sewer and water lines. As it was no longer needed for vehicular transportation, successive city administrations did nothing to stem its deterioration.
Although the Save Our Bridge group that staged Sunday’s demonstration was clearly trespassing, the police were nowhere to be found.
Police Chief Allen Weaver said Monday he is well aware of the bridge’s significance in the public life of his city, but added that was no excuse for the behavior of the marchers. Weaver said it was unfortunate that people ignored the bridge postings and ventured across.
“It’s not like we’re going to go down there all the time and remove people. But if a complaint is made we would have to persuade people to leave the property,” Weaver said. “Anytime someone not allowed on that bridge is out there, if it’s as unsafe as they say it is, they are putting lives of police and emergency people who have to go out there in jeopardy, too.”
The protesters were apparently unconcerned about their safety, however. In the face of frigid temperatures and a cold wind whipping in from Belfast Bay, the hardy band ranging from young children to octogenarians shuffled in unison across the slippery, ice-covered span.
Many of the marchers carried signs urging “Save Our Bridge.” Some mocked the city’s contention that the bridge was unsafe by making the crossing wearing life jackets. Others held fishing poles with mackerel dangling from the lines, a reminder of summer days fishing for mackerel from the bridge that could be lost forever if it stays closed.
Gail Clark proudly waved the Maine state flag in the wind as she walked across the bridge. Clark said her mother was a high school student who attended the dedication of the bridge in 1902 and that she had walked the bridge many times herself over the years.
“My mother was here when they opened it and I wanted to be here to save it,” Clark said. “We all love this bridge. It’s part of Belfast and this will focus some attention.”
East Belfast resident Dana Keene was among the marchers, and while he said he is opposed to using public funds to repair the structure, he condemned the City Council for closing it down.
“Nobody wants to spend a whole heap of money on it, but nobody wants the city telling them what the can or can’t do, either,” Keene said. “A lot of people use this bridge and for some of them it’s their only way to town. If it can hold itself up, it can hold a few people walking over it. They should be allowed to use it at their own risk.”
Those crossing the bridge could not help but see the 100-ton barge anchored to its supports. The barge is being used by a work crew removing the sewer line from the bridge. Some questioned how engineers could justify allowing the barge to be tied to the bridge piers while insisting that it was unsafe for the public.
Larry Gleeson of Church Street watched the group as it approached from the east side. A member of the comprehensive plan review committee, Gleeson observed that city planners had pressed the council for years to take steps to save the bridge.
“There seems to be a lot of interest in keeping the bridge open in all the public surveys that have been taken over the years,” Gleeson said. “A lot of communities have lost things like this over the years. It’s a scenic part of Belfast, it’s a landmark and it would be a shame to lose it.”