By: Marjorie Simmins
D’ESCOUSSE: Anyone who came or went from Cape Breton Island in the past 43 years passed under Everett Delorey’s office.
The “King of Swing,” as friends call him, has operated the swing bridge at the Canso Canal from his hanging “gondola” since February 1975. And it’s alright if passing motorists didn’t honk their horn.
“It was mostly people coming home to the Cape who would do that,” says Delorey, now the longest-serving bridge master at the Canso Canal. “Sometimes if the truckers knew me they used to take off their jake brake under the gondola to scare me. Other people would toot their horns three times.”
Delorey was originally hired on by the Canadian National Railway. He has worked for its successor, the Cape Breton Central Nova Scotia Railway since 1994.
“In the beginning, I replaced a man by the name of R. M. MacPherson, who was retiring,” says Delorey. “He used to walk from Havre Boucher every day. He’d get his newspaper from Port Hastings, then walk back on the train track to work. He had 24 kids!”
In 2017, Delorey and the four other bridge-men working in the last operational gondola in Canada moved out of the air, and onto land.
“The structure of the gondola was sound,” says Delorey, “but it was starting to deteriorate. It was not in good shape.”
Other safety issues had come under scrutiny, he says.
“The possibility for an accident was always there. I saw some accidents [on the bridge] over the years, but never too bad. But if a gas truck ever hit the gondola …”
The new control tower is sited at the far western end of the Canso Causeway – on Mainland turf.
“I’m still a Cape Bretoner,” laughs Delorey, who is the father of five adult children, and lives on Isle Madame with his wife of 47 years, Ann.
After decades of manual operation, everything is now electronic.
“I run the job with a mouse,” says Delorey. “It’s all on computer.”
The Canso Causeway, joining peninsular Nova Scotia to the island of Cape Breton, was completed in April 13, 1955, when the railway line and roadway were finished, at a cost of $22 million. The causeway separates Chedabucto Bay on the south from Northumberland Strait on the north.
The Canso Canal, which is 250 meters long, 24.4 meters wide, and 9.8 meters deep at low tide, was opened to shipping traffic on September 2, 1955. The waterway, operated by the Canadian Coast Guard, can facilitate a ship 224 meters in length, with a draft not exceeding 8.5 meters. Thousands of vessels transit the locks each year.
The bridge tender’s essential task is to open the bridge, which means swinging the road and railway line across the canal to allow this marine traffic through. But you’d better be “handy,” too.
“There are 250 grease nipples on the bridge,” says Delorey, “which have to be greased at least once a week, depending on the traffic.”
Four people divide up this work. Mechanical rooms are located at the centre of the bridge, and the east and west ends.
Bridge tenders also need to know the general operational rules for the railway, and to maintain good communications with the “canal-men,” who in turn communicate with vessel operators.
“Overall, we cover the road, railway, and ocean traffic,” says Delorey. “You keep an eye on everything. You gotta be on the ball.”
The bridge master’s season runs from April 15 to December 23. They work 12-hour shifts, four days on, four off, rotating nights and days.
For Delorey, there are no bad days on the job.
“The best part was being home in Cape Breton, raising our family,” he says. “The worst part – absolutely nothing!”
The funniest part, he says, were some of the women visitors from Newfoundland.
“Over the years, I guess a few of them made a bit of a game of flashing us when we worked in the gondola,” he says. “You know, it’s summer, the weather’s hot, the windows in the cars are all down. They’d whip up their t-shirts and then shout up at us.”
Did he receive danger pay on these days?
“Nah, all in a day’s work.”