Clay County Memories 8/31/17

Clay Today
Posted 8/30/17

Summer vacation was busy for the boy who lived on the Doctors Lake Bridge.

The boy and his family didn’t actually live on the bridge that spanned the mouth of Doctors Lake, but it certainly …

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Clay County Memories 8/31/17

Posted

Summer vacation was busy for the boy who lived on the Doctors Lake Bridge.

The boy and his family didn’t actually live on the bridge that spanned the mouth of Doctors Lake, but it certainly looked like it. Where the bridge ended – the house began – and the back porch hung over the lake. The house itself was so close to the road that his mother insisted that anyone driving south could easily reach in and “take the salt shaker off the table.”

The boy knew all the children in Orange Park because they spent large chunks of time at the bridge – waiting for it to open. It was built of cypress wood and steel in a design technically known as a swing bridge. Locals called it – The Crank Bridge – and it did both, simultaneously.

When the signal (usually a loud holler) came to open the bridge, the boy’s father and uncle would strike out for the middle of the bridge. There, they would insert a huge T-shaped bar into the center of the span and take their places on each end of the T. Slowly walking clockwise and using brute strength, they would crank the span and it would swing parallel to the rest of the bridge.

Come the weekend – the crank stayed hot. Streams of large pleasure boats (revelry in full gear) passed through, destined for weekend homes on Doctors Lake maintained by prominent Jacksonville families. Sailing boats, the craft of choice of Yerkes Laboratory doctors, were a special treat because many were novice sailors and required several tries to navigate the narrow opening.

The boy woke most mornings, before light, to the sounds of fishing boats slipping under the bridge from a night of pulling big channel cats from the St. Johns River. They were commercial fishermen headed for Carnes fish camp to clean and pack their catches in crates of ice and moss for transport north and south.

J.V. Carnes, originally from Steubenville, Ohio, began operation of a fish processing plant in Jacksonville in 1893. His first site in Orange Park was a two-story building on the town pier at the end of Kingsley Avenue. In 1914, the plant was moved to the north bank of Doctors Lake, east of the area where Carnes Street dead-ends into the lake.

Come afternoon, the boy headed home to catch crabs. He lured them with a scrap of chicken on a string and scooped them up with a net. (He graded himself by how many he could catch with the same bait ...and he was good.) Part of his catch would go to the dinner table, but most went into the chicken wire cage that sat in the shallow, shady water under the porch – waiting for the three times weekly pickup by the truck from a big hotel in Jacksonville.

Some days would find him out on the lake gathering water hyacinth plants – the ones with lots of buds just beginning to show lavender color. Carefully placing them in the floor of the boat, he would crank up the one-lung engine and bup-bup-bup back to the bridge. Many of the hotels in Florida had fountains where a few floating hyacinths added just the right touch.

Days on the bridge were never dull or predictable. Weekends meant directing traffic to keep the bridge clear of gawkers. People would just stop to watch the porpoises tossing fish to each other and traffic would come to a standstill. People cheered, took bets and named them after famous baseball players.

Mr. Robinson lived up River Road by the county line and one Sunday his bull got loose and decided he was “King of the Bridge.” Well, he cleared the bridge and it was over an hour before someone wrangled up Robinson and a cow the bull fancied. They walked him calm as you please right back home.

Chimpanzees also favored the bridge. One was accompanying a sailing party of Yerkes doctors out into the river when he decided to abandon ship and swing around on the undergirding of the bridge. He slipped and ended up in the water. As it turns out, chimps are better swingers than swimmers. Before it was over, the boy, his uncles, two doctors and men from four cars were sopping wet. It seems the chimp wouldn’t get back in the boat until someone bribed him with a beer.

When it came time to read the essays, he was always called on last and then everyone went out for recess because there was just no getting that class back in order after he finished.

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