Petaluma bridge tender manages rail, boat traffic

The 125-foot-long, 1.25-million-pound Haystack Railroad Bridge is solely under the control of Cathy Howell during her shift. That’s a lot of responsibility for the 54-year-old Santa Rosa resident, who spends long days perched in the solitude of the cinder block bridge tender’s tower adjacent to the iconic green span. It’s a Spartan room, but one with spectacular views of the Petaluma River and surrounding wetlands.

Howell and her fellow bridge tenders work like air traffic controllers, monitoring boat traffic on the river while always aware of the location of SMART commuter rail cars and freight trains. She is not authorized to work more than 12 hours a day, and she says that even though it seems like not much is going on, the job requires the utmost concentration.

“You’ve got to be vigilant,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to the radio, keep your eyes open for boats. … There’s no music, no watching TV, nothing. No distractions like that. If you can get a chance, early when it’s a little more quiet, you can read the paper and do the crossword.”

Howell is the point of contact for engineers and conductors, and for pleasure boaters and barge captains, all of whom call on her to control the bridge to ensure safe passage on water or rails. Before receiving extensive training on operating the Scherzer rolling lift bascule bridge that SMART purchased used from a railroad in Galveston, Texas, Howell had no prior experience tending bridges. She just applied for the job as one would for any other.

“Once I got the job, they trained me,” she said. “I am guessing that because I came from UPS and it was pretty safety oriented, they were looking for someone with a culture of safety in their background.”

GCOR training (General Code of Operating Rules) is required for all railroad employees, and while Howell learned procedure from this training, she says she was also on site with employees of Shimmick Construction, the company in charge of building the bridge, and “learned a lot just from standing right here and watching them.”

Currently, while SMART tests commuter trains on the 43-mile track from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, the Haystack bridge normally sits in the open position, it’s span pointed toward the sky, visibly towering above the nearby Highway 101 bridge, to give priority to Petaluma River traffic. This will change once service begins, which will involve trains crossing the bridge every 15 minutes during morning and evening commute times.

The view from Howell’s tower gives one a sense of perspective of the 13-mile Petaluma River, flanked on the west by a veritable encyclopedia of transportation facilities - industrial docks, the railroad and the 101 freeway - and on the east by the expanses of Allman Marsh and the 165-acre Shollenberger Park.

Users of small boats, and rowers in so-called “blind boats,” proceeding down the river with their backs leading, float past the bridge often hearing the departure of wildlife they have disturbed before spotting them. The river travelers are just passing through, but Howell has the opportunity to witness lives unfolding in their natural habitat and at their own pace.

She listed a few of her neighbors.

“I’ve got a little otter out here that I keep track of, a family of swans, and there’s a blue heron that reports for duty at 6:30 in the morning, just like me,” she said, reaching for a pair of binoculars that sit on her desk and motioning across the span to a hillside where a family of deer often cavorts.

Fitted with huge blinking red lights and shiny in its “McGlashan green,” - named after the late Marin County Supervisor and SMART supporter Charles McGlashan - the Haystack Bridge is impressive in both vertical and horizontal positions, not least so because it takes just two minutes to change from one to the other. While this may seem long for rowers balanced in a skinny boats on the river at high tide, it is actually an amazing feat that more than a million tons of bridge can be maneuvered in Howell’s capable hands.

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