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An old river bridge prepares to blow out 100 candles

One of the nation’s oldest operating bascule bridges prepares for a big birthday

Bridge counterweights above with traffic below viewing the Groton side.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

MYSTIC, Conn. – The beloved old drawbridge is 100 years old now, long enough for the shape of automobiles that pass over it to morph from Henry Ford’s Model T to 1960s-era Mustangs to shiny modern-day Honda Accords and Ford Escapes.

The bridge doesn’t care.

It has stood here, a reliable and vital steel-and-concrete connector that has linked Mystic and Stonington since Warren G. Harding lived in the White House.

And across all those years, it has become something else: a time capsule of sorts into which long-time residents and camera-toting day-trippers store memories and can religiously set their watches by.

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“The first time we visited Mystic, I didn’t even know it was a drawbridge,” Michael Bettez, 65, of Danielson told me the other morning as another hot summer sun climbed a cobalt blue sky. “I said, ‘What do you mean: drawbridge? It’s so medieval.

“What are you talking about? And then I realized: How are the boats going to get under here? So, I figured something has to happen. And the first time we were here and saw it go up, it was pretty amazing.”

And then, just minutes later, it happens again.

Gates slowly descend, signaling Main Street traffic and sidewalk pedestrians to stop.

A loud horn sounds. And, then for a moment, everything comes to halt next to the river that flows through downtown Mystic.

Just as it has for a century now, the old Mystic River bascule bridge stirs to life.

Once it has fully opened, kids in life vests and colorful kayaks float by as do boats with masts too tall to fit under a closed bridge.

“When the whistle goes off, it’s a very loud whistle and it just startles everybody,” said Stephen Menno, president of the Mystic River Historical Society. “I’ve got grandkids and, all of a sudden, it’s like: I know what’s about to happen. Then everybody just jumps.”

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Yes, people jump. They stare.

And they smile as they watch a local piece of history begin and then complete its faithful duties.

The bridge is operated by the Connecticut Department of Transportation and it carries an estimated 11,800 cars each day. It opens about 2,200 times a year on an hourly schedule, opening at 40 minutes past the hour.

Nobody knows this bridge ― its schedule, its mechanism, its history — better than Roderick Coleman, 63, who just retired after 33 years as the bridge tender, the man who made the bridge work, the man who still remembers when he first laid eyes on this bridge.

His father, a Navy man, had received orders to transfer from the Submarine Base here in Groton to San Diego. Coleman was just a 10-year-old kid then.

“Three of us, including my two brothers, were in the back of the station wagon,” he recalled the other day from the bridge. “We were coming from Groton over to the Stonington side and we got stopped at the traffic light. And I grabbed both of the headrests and I said, ‘Mom! What is that?’

“The bridge was going up in the air. And my mother said, ‘That’s a drawbridge.’ And I looked up and I said, ‘Wow! I want that job one day.”

What followed was a four-day drive to California. He remembers the days his dad drove a black 1957 Chevy, and when Rod Coleman worked as a part-time letter carrier for the post office. And how, as life often does, one thing led to another and he spotted an opening for a job at the bridge.

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A job that became a career. And then a life on — or to be more precise — above the water.

“No matter what you do, you’re going to have close calls,” he told me when I asked him for bridge-operator war stories. “You’re going to have rich guys who buy boats but have no experience.

“You’ll have a retired Navy captain and you can tell he’s an experienced boater. Then you’ll get the rich guys and guys who are pulling on your blind side and then at the last minute they’re going to want to stick their nose out. And your heart goes up into your throat. You’re going to get that a lot.”

When the bridge goes up, a six-minute waterfront minuet begins during which Coleman has to calculate a variety of factors on the river, including the schedule for the Amtrak trains that use the nearby railroad bridge.

“I may even delay the opening because the railroad bridge might say, ‘I’ve got boats coming up, Rod,’” he said. “I may open up for five minutes. And then I’ve got boats on this side that want to get outside the railroad bridge. If I open up, they’re only going to get stuck between the two bridges.

“And the guys coming up are going to miss my opening. So, these are the things that the pedestrians and the motor vehicle people don’t know.”

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But Roderick Coleman knows. It’s been marbled into his daily routine for more than three decades now.

“This bridge is history,” he told me. “It’s not like running Niantic or East Haddam or the other drawbridges in the state. This is history. And, for me, I take it personally. The bridge should be maintained. It should be kept clean. And when you operate it, you should operate it in a safe manner.

“And you should be polite to the people out here who pay their tax dollars.”

Forty years or so ago, that used to be me. I lived then in Mystic when I worked for The Day of New London, my beloved former newspaper.

I traveled over the drawbridge on my way to New London in the morning and back home each evening.

Sometimes, if I had been daydreaming or not paying attention, I would get stopped in downtown Mystic as the old bridge inched upward and — after the boats had floated by— slowly settled back into place.

I never minded that interruption.

I shut off the ignition. I sat and watched the old bridge do its work. And I thought: How many times in my life will a drawbridge by an occasional part of my daily routine?

The answer, as it turned out, was: not too many.

These days, it’s more often that I’m watching the traffic on the Southeast Expressway as I make my way to a story.

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And, as I stare at that hot sea of glass-and-chrome all around me, I think:

Take me back to Masons Island. Take me back to the Mystic River, to that beautiful old drawbridge that for so long was Roderick Coleman’s place of work.

I’ll gladly take its brief-and-beautiful motoring interruption any — or every — day of the week.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.