Cribari children say imperiled bridge a vital link to Saugatuck’s past
To the children of William F. Cribari, whose name is memorialized by the 132-year-old Saugatuck swing bridge, the history of the metal span and surrounding neighborhood is personal.
Third-generation Westport natives, the Cribaris know the riverside slice of town as the unique cultural enclave it was in the town’s past, and they know the bridge carrying Route 136 over the river, or Bridge Street as its is known locally, as a basic part of their childhood.
“I remember jumping off that bridge to swim,” recalled Ed Cribari, now 62. Like his brother Bill Jr., 63, and sister, Sharon Saccary, 64, he has strong feelings about keeping the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge intact.
But a fight over keeping the bridge intact was ignited last fall after the state Department of Transportation released a preliminary report identifying structural and operational problems that have beset the span. As the DOT conducts a more detailed study on the bridge’s condition — expected to serve as the basis of its decision on whether to repair or replace it — local preservation advocates launched a vigorous campaign aimed at saving the landmark.
“We used to fish off the bridge, swim off the bridge,” Bill Jr. said. “You weren’t allowed to do that, but as kids,” he said, it was easy to get away with.
“The river was a lot cleaner then,” he said. “There’s a lot of silt in it. It’s not as deep as it used to be.” He remembers seeing oil tankers travel up the Saugatuck River right up to the bridge and deliver about 400,000 gallons to Gault’s storage tank on the river’s west bank.
“My thought was that it was a historical part of Westport, so how can they get rid of it?” Saccary said of the possibility that it might be replaced.
“My feeling is it’s probably one of the few historical things left in town, whether it’s in my name or my father’s name or anybody’s really,” she said.
“We were a little concerned that they might be taking it down,” Bill Jr. said. “I think that’s a mistake. Not because my father’s name is on it, but that it’s been there so long.”
It was thanks to former state Rep. Joe Mioli that the bridge was posthumously named for their father, Officer William F. Cribari, who died in late January 2007. He was a World War II veteran, Saugatuck Hose Co. volunteer fireman and traffic-directing legend, who for many years kept traffic moving — with distinctive style — at the often-congested corner of Bridge Street and Riverside Avenue. The senior Cribari was born and raised in the Saugatuck neighborhood.
“He was there every day, from a certain time of day to a certain time of night,” Saccary said of her father’s traffic post near the west end of the bridge. “He loved that bridge. He said his grandfather helped build that bridge, so it’s family history going back.
“His family owned part of Saugatuck for a very long time,” she said, and as a child who grew up there, Cribari Sr. would recount to his own children how he had skated on the ice-coated when temperatures turned cold enough.
“Joe Mioli fought very hard to get that bridge named after my father,” she added. “Unfortunately, my dad didn’t know that before he passed away, but we were thrilled that they finally did it.”
“He was a fireman actually before he was a police officer,” Bill Jr. said, noting that his father was chief of the volunteers at the Saugatuck fire station. He and his brother not only remember getting chances to ride on the fire company’s truck, but hanging out in the firehouse, which in the 1950s and ’60s was a neighborhood social center.
“We used to sit on the back wall with our bamboo poles and fish for snappers,” Ed remembered.
“We spent a lot of time down there, going over the bridge and swimming off it,” Bill said. “I remember as a kid we were allowed to go out there and turn the crank with the state guys or the town guys or whoever was around to open the bridge for the boats” that were too large to pass beneath.
“The people who built the town, they lived down there,” Ed said of those days. “Everybody knew everybody.”
“It was a great place to grow up,” Sharon added. “It was a great place to be.”
“There’s so much history down there and a lot of it is gone,” Ed said. “People have to know the history of Saugatuck and understand what went on down there”
“I think the bridge is just a piece of that history,” he said.