Step onto the Queen Emma Bridge and you feel a moment of vertigo as it shifts slightly beneath your feet. You’ll sway a bit and it takes a moment to realize that what appears to be a simple, conventional bridge with fixed points on either end is actually floating upon pontoons, sixteen to be exact. Nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady” this permanent floating bridge spans the Sint Anna Bay and connects the two sections of Willemstad: Otra Banda and Punta districts.
The city of Willemstad dates back to 1634 and the shoreline of the older section of the city, Punta, had structures crammed cheek to jowl by the time a bridge between the two parts of the city was contemplated. To have constructed a conventional bridge would have required the expropriation and destruction of a significant portion of the old colonial city. Entrepreneur and US Consul Leonard B. Smith came up with an elegantly simple solution that allowed the existing buildings to remain by designing a hinged bridge that swings out laterally from the Otra Banda side. The original bridge, completed in 1888, opens several times a day to allow passage of watercraft of varying sizes (up to and including the modern mega-sized cruise ships) from sea to the port and vice versa.
When a ship wants to enter or exit the natural harbor, known as Schottegat, a flag either orange (for a short duration) or blue (for a longer duration) is hoisted alerting people. A bell sounds shortly thereafter and an operator sitting in a small cabin operates the controls for two diesel engines that allow the bridge to swing on its Otra Banda axis in an arc parallel to the shore, a process that takes a surprisingly short amount of time. During the time the bridge is open two ferries (ponchis) shuttle back and forth between Punta and Otra Banda transporting passengers for free.
Named after Queen Emma of the Netherlands, the bridge was originally a toll bridge; two guilders were charged for pedestrians wearing shoes, ten guilders for horses and, in the 20th century, 25 guilders for cars. Since the poor citizens without shoes were allowed to cross for free many people would remove their shoes and walk across barefoot to avoid the toll. Others considered free transit a form of charity and would save both their shoes and their money for the special occasion of crossing the bridge, proudly paying the fee. After 1934 the toll was abolished and the issue of shoes became moot.
Over the years the bridge was renovated and enlarged but increased shipping traffic through Sint Anna Bay to the Schottegat harbor resulted in longer and longer waits for cars wishing to cross. Construction began on the second bridge to be named after a Netherland’s queen, Queen Juliana Bridge, which is now the highest bridge in the Caribbean. Built to provide passage for the enormous ships entering the harbor, at its apex its height is 56.4 meters (185 feet) above the sea water which also makes it one of the highest bridges in the world. After the opening of the Queen Julianna Bridge on Oueen’s Day in 1974 which replaced the original structure, vehicular traffic on the Queen Emma Bridge ceased.
The view of both bridges from the commanding summit of Fort Nassau emphasizes the dramatic difference in the relative heights of these two complementary structures and underscores the important role these bridges have played in unifying the city of Willemstad. For the very practical Netherlanders the bridges they’ve built reflect radically different personalities. The old lady, Queen Emma, undulates slowly while pedestrians cross from one side of Willemstad to another then swing dances open to allow the passage of the harbor traffic. And the regal Queen Juliana from her lofty height is the soaring beauty of the urban island skyline.
By Anita and Richard