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Virgin Islands Stories: Bridge to Beef Island

Note: This article was written before the completion of the Beef Island Airport renovation. I liked the article the way it was written so I’ll present it in its original form.

The first and only toll bridge in the Virgin Islands runs between Tortola and Beef Island, the home of the BVI’s principal airport. The bridge is loaded with cultural charm, due primarily to the manner in which the toll is collected. The bridge operator sits in the shade of a small rustic tollbooth lying off one side of the road. When a vehicle comes to the tollgate, the collector extends a long stick with a tin can attached to the end. The driver places the toll in the can. The collector then retracts the stick, takes out the toll and opens the gate, allowing the vehicle to pass to the other side. The right to collect this toll was granted to the owners of the property where the bridge is located as a concession for the use of their land. The bridge, engineered and designed to last thirty years, is nearing the end of its days and, to the dismay of some and to the relief of others, this BVI cultural landmark will soon become just a memory of the past.

Before the bridge’s completion in 1966, vehicles traveling from Tortola to Beef Island used a do-it-yourself pontoon barge which could cross the narrow channel with one vehicle only, but with as many passengers as could squeeze aboard. A steel cable connected the barge to each shore serving to secure the barge to land and to control the sideways motion of the craft.

This is how the system worked:

If you were lucky, when you drove up to the shoreline, the barge would be on your side of the channel. In this case, you would haul the barge close to the shore with a special line designed for that purpose. Then you had to tie it tight to the large metal cleat, so that you could drive your vehicle aboard. Next, you would untie that line and manually pull the barge to the other shore. This was accomplished by hauling on a thick hemp line that was run through a series of pulleys to provide the mechanical advantage necessary for a single person to handle the large, heavy and unwieldy barge. Nonetheless, it was said to be quite a workout that normally produced copious amounts of perspiration, some huffing and puffing, and possibly grunts, groans or curses.

An alternative would be to hire some of the children from East End who would hang around the barge looking for a chance to earn a little money. When you reached the other side, you would tie the barge off tight so that you could exit the craft without your vehicle falling into the water. Then you were supposed to untie that line from the cleat, so that someone else on the opposite side could retrieve the barge.

If the barge was on the other side when you arrived, and the last person to use the barge had been thoughtful enough to untie it from the shore cleat, you could pull it to your side and then follow the previously mentioned procedure.

If, on the other hand, the barge was on the opposite side, but the last person had thoughtlessly left it tied, you would then have a problem. If you couldn’t attract the attention of someone on the far shore to untie the line, someone, probably you, had to swim over and untie it, after which the barge could be hauled over to the shore where your vehicle was left waiting.

In 1966, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge replaced the do-it-yourself pontoon barge. The dedication ceremony included Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II herself. This occasion also marked the first time a reigning monarch had ever visited the British Virgin Islands.

Queen Elizabeth arrived at West End, Tortola on the Royal Yacht Britannia. A bronze plaque was placed on the dock at the exact spot where “Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II first stepped foot in the BVI.” The monument has since been moved as it presented an obstruction to the efficient loading and unloading of cargo on the dock. The plaque indicating the exact spot where Her Majesty first stepped foot on BVI territory is now enigmatically located on the wall of the customs building.

The royal visit began with a brief ceremony, during which West End was renamed, Sopers Hole. The Queen then proceeded by motorcar to Roadtown for a further ceremony and then continued on to the eastern end of the island in order to dedicate the newly constructed bridge, which would bear her name.

The plan was for the Queen to arrive at the bridge, whereupon she would receive a demonstration of its opening and closing and then make her official dedication.

But things don’t normally proceed on schedule in the Virgin Islands. As could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, none of the planned events occurred when they were supposed to, which resulted in the Queen arriving at the bridge hours later than expected. Because of the long delay, the bridge operator assumed that the visit had been cancelled, and went home for lunch, after which he took a nap, as was his custom.

When the Queen arrived, not only was the operator not present, but he had also taken along the crank that served to operate the bridge. Without that custom-made instrument, no one else could perform the demonstration either.

Someone went to fetch the operator, but after a while, the Prince, who had accompanied the Queen, got tired of waiting and suggested they dedicated the bridge without the demonstration.

The dedication was performed with all the proper pomp and ceremony and the one and only toll bridge in all of the Virgin Islands was officially christened the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. The royal procession then turned around and the Queen and her retinue returned to Sopers Hole and the Yacht, Britannia.

Over the years, the combination of salt air and increased and heavier vehicular traffic has taken their toll on the physical integrity of the bridge. Additionally, the completion of the new Beef Island International Airport and the large-scale commercial and residential development of Beef Island itself have rendered the old bridge inadequate to meet the new demands. For these reasons, a multimillion dollar project is underway to build an adequate replacement for the quaint and beloved Queen Elizabeth II Bridge that has delighted so many first time visitors to the British Virgin Islands.

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