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).
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)
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)
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)
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.)