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Blog 10 – Pontoon Bridge: The Swinging Old Lady

 

 Bridge bell

I don’t have sailor legs. On every boat, big or small, my knees immediately start to wince. Even a small walk on the Pontoonbridge causes seasickness. Before I photograph the pride of Curacao, I take a ‘Primatour’. A small pill for seasickness to photograph our bridge? Well, there is no other way, because our bridge…. Is moving!

When I am close to Penha at the Breedestreet, I can already see the Queen Emma Bridge. Before I reach the quay, the bridge bell rings and the gate automatically closes. I look at the flagpole next to the building of the keeper. The orange flag is hoisted so the bridge will only partially open. And indeed, as I guessed, when the bridge is open at 30 degrees, it stops. A small boat maneuvers through the opening towards the open sea and within moments the bridge is closed again.

Pontoonbridge

The center of Willemstad is divided in two by St. Anna Bay. This deep bay connects the Caribbean Sea with Schottegat, a water that was an ideal route to the port of Curacao. At the east side, Punda is located and at the west side, Otrobanda is located: which means ‘the other side’ in Papiamentu. Since ships had to sail in, but they still wanted to connect the two sides of the city, there should be a bridge that could open and close. However, no drawbridge structure could be used because of the 300 meter width of the bay. They searched for an alternative and the idea of a floating bridge was born: A Pontoonbridge.

History

The Queen Emma Bridge was built in 1888 by Leonard Burlington Smith and is the only floating wooden swing bridge in the world. The bridge is 168 meters long and floats on 16 pontoons. Initially it was a toll bridge and you had to pay to get to the other side. For those without shoes, the bridge was free to enter. But soon the toll was abolished and the bridge was free to enter for everyone.

In 1939, the Queen Emma Bridge was completely updated. The original design was honored, but was completely rebuilt with new materials. However, until 1974, the bridge was used by all motorized traffic, from which the bridge severely suffered. As of the moment that the higher bridge – Queen Juliana Bridge – was opened, motorized traffic was no longer allowed at the floating bridge and only pedestrians could enter.

Renovation

In 2005, a major renovation was carried out in which 95% of the bridge was replaced. The pontoons were reused, but the remaining structure was completely renovated. For this renovation, 478 cubic meters of African hardwood was used. The cost for this much needed and thorough renovation were 4.5 million euro’s and were paid by the European Union.

Therefore, there was a lot of outrage about the fact that it was less than ten years later the bridge was repaired again. A large beam at the Punda side was weakened, due to severe dry rot and the deck had to be replaced due to poor drainage. There was budget of half a million guilders for the repairs and the bridge was shipped to Parrera to execute these repairs.

Ship Ahoy!

When the bridge is closed again, I cautiously take my first step. With my eyes fixed on the horizon to minimize the confusion of my equilibrium, I try to find some balance. When I am used to the slowly moving bridge, I take a good look at the bridge itself. The most striking is the new herringbone pattern. From the middle of the deck, the wood is placed in a tight V shape. Before I get the chance to take a good look – read: photograph – the bell rings again. Again, my eyes search for the mast. A blue flag: Ship Ahoy!

The blue flag means that the bridge will be completely open. People around me rush to the left or right to reach their ‘choice’. The bridge is fastened to the Otrobanda side and when the bridge opens, it is parallel to Otrobanda. The end of the bridge, which is the entrance at the Punda side, now lies at restaurant the Gouverneur.

Acquaintance

First there comes a tugboat and eventually there is a big oil tanker. From the bridge I have a beautiful view to see this all happen and I see the tanker disappear into the afternoon sun towards the horizon. It is a unique experience to see such a ‘building’ narrowly pass you by, but also the moving bridge itself is a special expierence. The Queen Emma Bridge, the Pontoonbridge is literally and figuratively connected to the city of Curacao. It was therefore unthinkable to not include her in this tour. And though she was already an old friend, I took a different look at her and enjoyed being together with her.

With thanks to Manon Hoefman

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