It’s A Wonderful Bridge

Alert — and historic-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther sent along this perfect holiday/Westport piece. She writes:

A few days ago, my TV remote dropped me into the last half of the 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I entered the story just as George Bailey ran onto the Bedford Falls Bridge and contemplated suicide. Luckily George’s guardian angel, Clarence, showed up just in time to help George see the value of his life, and its impact on his town and loved ones.

Though I’ve seen the movie a bazillion times, this time I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. George Bailey’s bridge was very similar to our own Saugatuck swing bridge (the William F. Cribari Bridge).

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (1946).

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (1946).

Due to my involvement over the last year and a half in efforts to not only document the history of our 132-year old span, but also save it from the impending doom of the state Department of Transportation’s scrap heap, I’ve become  sensitized to old bridges in general — particularly truss bridges like ours (and George’s).

Seeing the movie from this new perspective, I became intrigued by the film’s use of the bridge as a symbol. Sixty years ago, when It’s a Wonderful Life was first released, plenty of small truss bridges still existed. Clearly, it was one of many elements used by the filmmakers to convey the quaint, homey feel of a small, American town — towns like Westport, and thousands of others across the country.

George Bailey’s bridge, set in fictional Bedford Falls, plays a pivotal role in the story. The 2 most transformative moments occur as George stands upon it:  the first as he prepares to jump from it, the second when he returns to the bridge and desperately pleads, “I want to live.”

It’s believed that the town of Seneca Falls, New York was director Frank Capra’s inspiration for It’s a Wonderful Life. He supposedly visited Seneca Falls during the time the screenplay was being developed. Seneca Falls has a real bridge that looks much like the one depicted in the movie.

It also looks a lot like our Saugatuck swing bridge.

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (left); the actual Seneca Falls bridge (right). (Photos/Ottawarewind.com)

George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (left); the actual Seneca Falls bridge (right). (Photos/Ottawarewind.com)

Though the Seneca Falls bridge and Westport’s are similar in many ways, Seneca’s can’t hold a candle to our own.

Our bridge, built in 1884, is 132 years old — the oldest active bridge of its type in the nation.  Seneca’s, built in 1915, is a mere 101. Both are truss bridges, though ours is longer and made of iron; theirs is made of steel. Our bridge swings open for boat traffic; theirs doesn’t. The roads over both bridges are known as Bridge Street — but ours has the additional honor of being designated a State Scenic Road.

Our bridge crosses the Saugatuck River; theirs crosses the Seneca. Both bridges are still in use and open to traffic. Neither is tall enough to allow semi-tractor trailers to cross.

But here’s where Seneca’s bridge has it over ours. It was rehabilitated in 1997.  Ours may meet the wrecking ball within the next few years — if the State has its druthers. DOT wants to make room for big rigs.

Original plans for the 1884 Saugatuck River bridge. (Image courtesy of Westport Historical Society)

Original plans for the 1884 Saugatuck River bridge. (Image courtesy of Westport Historical Society)

In the fictional town of Bedford Falls, and in the real-life towns of Seneca Falls and Westport, bridges are iconic symbols that tell a story, provide a sense of place, and teach us about our history. They span rivers and time. They connect what separates us, and they can deter what we prefer to fend off.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, the critical moment occurs as George stands for the 2nd time on the Bedford Falls Bridge and begs to have his old life back again. Suddenly, snow begins to fall. He is transported from his alternate reality and returned to the present. His gratitude sends him jubilantly running through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting greetings to all the buildings and friends he cherishes.

As the film ends, all is well in Bedford Falls. Goodness triumphs over selfishness and greed, bells ring and the angel Clarence gets his wings.

The William Cribari (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Christmas Eve 2015. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The William Cribari (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Christmas Eve 2015. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Having newly seen It’s a Wonderful Life from the bridge’s perspective, I realize that it offers Westporters valuable insights and inspiration.

Will we fight hard to keep what many of us cherish — our Saugatuck swing bridge? What powerful forces will try to overcome valiant efforts to keep it just the way it is? What changes to the bridge could transform (or devastate) portions of our community forever? If we lose it, will we wish we had better understood the wisdom of its ways?

The film ends with 4 important words. The entire cast sings “Auld Lang Syne.”  Loosely translated from Scottish, the phrase means “for the sake of old times.”  Let’s remember those words.

(Wendy is a founding member of the Westport Preservation Alliance. For more information about the history of the Saugatuck Swing Bridge and the efforts to save it, click here.)

21 responses to “It’s A Wonderful Bridge

  1. Charlie Taylor

    BRAVO,,,,!!!!Sent from Xfinity Mobile App

  2. Keep our William Cribari Bridge!! Progress doesn’t mean giving up the old but learning how to integrate it into our lives, making accommodations where needed and working with history to preserve its beauty.

  3. Beautifully said.
    Thank you for all you do to preserve, honor and celebrate Westport.
    (Kathy Maher, State Historic Preservation Council)

  4. Blake Schnirring

    Yes, that’s all we need, a bunch of “big rigs’ tying up more traffic in the Saugatuck Area. I can’t even imagine.

  5. My memories were friendly “Crowbar” nodding to me each morning as well as 100’s of other Westporters each an every day.

  6. Tractor-trailers do fit under the bridge. I followed behind one yesterday. – Chris Woods

  7. What can we do to save our bridge? Would any publicity help?

  8. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    Perfectly written. The William Caribari Bridge aka “THE BRIDGE STREET BRIDGE” needs to be saved for so many reasons, historical, traffic quieting, sentimental and so much more. Just as the Bedford Falls (Seneca Falls) bridge played a part in saving the fictional life of George Bailey our bridge can play a pivotal role in saving Westport’s integrity and history. I’m on board to save this wonderful piece of Westport.

  9. Loved reading your post Wendy. I walked across that bridge to Saugatuck School (on Bridge Street), for many years. We need to fight to keep what many of us cherish,.for “Auld Lang Syne”

  10. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    It has been more than sixty years since I crossed the Cribari Bridge when I came to it (When I lived in Westport in the 1950s). Today, Youse Guys might want to hook up with any and all of the following organizations for support: Old Bridge Preservation Society, National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, Southeast Bridge Preservation Society; and probably dozens of local groups, each fiercely protective of their span. There is a sweet irony in the name of the character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact (possibly) there may be a bridge named in his honor: During World War Two, the army developed a portable, transportable river spanning device to get Allied forces across rivers in enemy territory. It was known as the Bailey Bridge. Cheers, guys, and keep the aspidistra flying.

  11. Beautifully written.

  12. Well said, Wendy, and great photo of the bridge across the Saugatuck on Christmas Eve last year!
    The idea of destroying the integrity of the bridge, let alone the bridge itself, is truly analogous to George’s jumping into the river — there would be no turning back. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Let’s support all efforts towards making the fate of the bridge analogous to Georges fate: that the value of the bridge, like the value of George’s life, is realized and sustained. Let us hope that the bridge and the history it represents will be honored and preserved. Let us bear in mind that doing so will also prevent numerous “big rigs” spilling off of I-95 and thundering through Greens Farms Road, Bridge Street, and Saugatuck whenever traffic on I-95 overflows into the town’s residential neighborhoods.
    Thanks to Westport Preservation Alliance for all of your hard work.

  13. Thank you so much for this Wendy. I love the bridge I love the movie and I’m now clued in to DOT plans!

  14. Dan, great article. Did you know that MTC is doing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A LIVE RADIO PLAY this coming weekend? Details are on our website: http://www.musictheatreofconnecticut.com or call 203-454-3883.

  15. the Bridge Street Bridge in NY looks like it has been renovated well even if it took 6 years. Not sure what they did but the roadway is wide and safe, the walkways on both sides look inviting, did it get rebuilt or patched. It is a little disconcerting that it is now on a watch list, weight limits reduced, possible rehab or replacement on the cards. Let’s hope CT gets it right on our Bridge Street Bridge.

  16. Deja vu.

  17. Nice story. Having been born and raised in Seneca Falls and spending the last 10 years in Westport (am I the only one?) I’d add another advantage to my hometown bridge — it never had any traffic that I can recall!

  18. This beautifully written piece is an instant holiday classic.

  19. Thank you, Wendy, for this fabulous piece. And thank you for pointing out what now seems so obvious: bridges can be symbolic. Jungian even. Unfortunately for the engineers at DOT, this particular bridge has become something more than what it was designed to be; it’s a part of our culture. And that’s a quality that cannot really be replicated. It has something to do with the idea of authenticity – I think.

  20. A wonderful piece. “For the sake of old times…”