Salty Air

Osterville Bridge Tender’s Up & Down Job

Written by Brian Tarcy


OSTERVILLE – “My job is solely to operate the bridge, to let boats go by that can’t fit under the bridge,” said Jack Coughlan, 80, of Dennis, who was the afternoon bridge tender on the Osterville Bridge on Wednesday afternoon. “People also call this the Grand Island Bridge,” he said.

In a gray tiny shed-like building atop the bridge, Coughlan, controls the up and down movements of a draw bridge that connects Osterville to Osterville’s Great Island, which contains the gated community, Oyster Harbors.

When tall boats want to go in or out of North Bay, they need the help of a bridge tender, who must stop auto traffic in order to raise the bridge. The bridge is run by the town of Barnstable, said Coughlan. It is on state property, and the governing body is the Coast Guard because it is part of the Inland Waterways System, he said.

Jack Coughlin, Osterville Bridge Tender, just after a boat went under the bridge.

Jack Coughlin, Osterville Bridge tender, just after a boat went under the bridge.

“All of these steps are sequential,” he said.

1) Turn on traffic lights (one button)
2) Set down gates on both sides.(separate buttons for each gate)
3) Turn on the motor
4) Raise the bridge
5) Use the foot pedal for slight adjustments if needed
6) Use the audio horn

On the reverse, the horn is not needed, and the foot pedal is used last to set the bridge back down, he said.

“I can give you empirical data,” said Coughlan. “There were three boats today so far. Yesterday there were eight. On Monday, there were three. On Sunday, we had 21 boats go through, with 15 lifts.” Sometimes, he said, more than one boat goes through during a lift.

Coughlan retired from a job as a school psychologist in Belmont. “I went from being very busy to having nothing to do. Having nothing to do is fine, but having nothing to do all the time is not so good,” he said. He took the bridge tender job four years ago after applying when a friend, whom he plays pool with, told him about an opening.

Coughlan said he enjoys the job, and as he said it, his phone rang. A boat was coming in. He pointed out the circuitous path a boat has to take from from Nantucket Sound, through West Bay, to get to the bridge. At one point, the boat disappeared around a corner of land as it executed its Z-maneuver.

“Seventy-five percent of the time, they are on short wave radio,” said Coughlan. “The rest of the time, they honk at us with a boat horn, which has a really distinctive sound, or they will call us on the phone.”

The little office was hot this day, and Coughlan pointed out the homemade screens that one of his co-workers made to fit the small rectangular windows below the bigger windows. When summer kicks in, he said, he will bring a fan. “This is the first really hot day,” he said.

While the ventilation is bad, the office view is pretty nice. And there is even a new office chair that is actually comfortable, said Coughlan. In there, he said, he spends a lot of time reading.

“The biggest problem with the late shift is they want you to keep the bridge open all night long,” he said. Although most people are nice, he recalled one boater from a couple of years ago. “He was very angry, could tell by his body language I had to lock the door. He was out there screaming and yelling wanting to know who my boss was. My answer is, if you’re that angry, you figure it out.”

On Wednesday after the boat went through and he went through all of his steps, he put the bridge back down and as it came near setting back down, he was using his foot pedal for slight adjustments. On the way up, he said, he uses the foot pedal if he needs to raise the bridge up to a more vertical position, for really tall boats.

At the last few feet, then inches on the way down, he said, “I’m feathering. When I hear that boom, then I know we’re all set.”

As he opened the gate, he wanted the traffic to wait for the process to finish, but some of these people seem to know the drill. As he waved for them to stop while he finished, some simply drove by and waved back. “I glare well and gesticulate,” he said of his approach to drivers who don’t seem to understand the safety part of his job.

He said he understands where he is. “The community around here is very exclusive,” he said. How exclusive? During the 2012 presidential campaign, he was approached by secret service agent because a convoy of ten cars was gong to be going over the bridge. They wanted to make sure it would stay open for the whole convoy.

Whose convoy? Mitt Romney was holding a fundraiser in Osterville. “I don’t even know which car he was in,” said Coughlan.

So while the boats are impressive, Coughlan said, “The most impressive thing that goes by here in summer are the automobiles. Lots of Bentleys, Ferraris, Porches, and Jaguars by the ton. It’s an impressive show.”


— Brian Tarcy



About the author

Brian Tarcy

Brian Tarcy is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. He is a longtime journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the Cape Cod Times and several other publications. He is the author of "YOU CAN'T SELL RIGHT FIELD; A Cape Cod Novel." He is also the author or co-author of more than a dozen mostly non-fiction books, including books with celebrity athletes Cam Neely, Tom Glavine and Joe Theisman. His previous book was, "ALMOST: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream" with Hap Klopp,who created the iconic brand, The North Face.
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Brian is a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan with a long-running NFL predictions/political satire column connecting weekly world events to the fate of his favorite team, now at

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