PEI

'It's really surreal': Bridge employee reminisces about the end of one era and beginning of another

James Hagen was still in high school when the province held a plebiscite to decide on the construction of the Confederation Bridge. When he graduated he started a job with Marine Atlantic, becoming the third generation of his family to work on the ferries crossing between Borden-Carleton and Cape Tormentine.

James Hagen has worked as a patroller on the bridge since the first day it opened

James Hagen is a patroller on the Confederation Bridge, where he has been working for the past 20 years. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

James Hagen was still in high school when the province held a plebiscite to decide on the construction of the Confederation Bridge. 

When he graduated he started a job with Marine Atlantic, becoming the third generation of his family to work on the ferries crossing between Borden-Carleton, P.E.I., and Cape Tormentine, N.B.

He worked in various positions on the boats for almost 10 years when reality set in.

"When it became clear that the thing [Confederation Bridge] was going to be completed we had to kind of shift gears and think about our futures."

Setting a course

Hagen enrolled at the Justice Institute in Summerside, P.E.I., and took a law and security class to become qualified as a bridge patroller.

Strait Crossing Ltd. offered displaced ferry workers the first chance at jobs on the bridge and Hagen had his sights set on one of the 50 or so positions available.

"My father was still working on the ferries when they were wrapping up, and I was applying for the bridge that was replacing the ferries so that was a bit of an adjustment within the family," he said.

James Hagen says that when the bridge became a reality he decided to go back to school and get qualified for a position with Strait Crossing Ltd. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"But that's all in the past now."

Hagen said though a lot of ferry workers were competing with each other for jobs on the bridge, people "kept it pleasant."

"Everybody's got to fend for themselves and put food on their table."

'Kind of in denial'

Hagen said that the prospect of a bridge connecting New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island was undesirable for a lot of people in the Borden-Carleton community.

"Having grown up around the ferries it was something, of course, at that point that none of us really wanted to see," he said.

James Hagen says that before the bridge, residents in Borden-Carleton had to time their movements around ferry departures to avoid traffic.

He also said that it was unbelievable to think that a bridge would be able to stand up to the elements in the Northumberland Strait.

"We were kind of in denial I think too," he said.

"A lot of the ferry workers were watching it being built and we used to sit around the crew's mess aboard ship and joke about how we'd be staring at pieces of that bridge for the next however many years."

'A weird feeling'

Hagen said Marine Atlantic's 700 employees were like a "happy family where everybody knew everybody's name." 

That made it tough for the entire community when the ferries shut down, bringing an end to an era — with many of the workers losing their jobs.

James Hagen was the third generation of his family to work on the ferries and says when he started work on the bridge it required some adjustment. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"It was kind of a weird feeling amongst ferry workers, because we were all kind of saying goodbye to each other," he said.

"That was a group feeling, but at the same time you each had to individually think about your own, you know wellbeing financially, so it was every man for himself."

'A sea of people'

Hagen was working on the bridge the day it opened for business, and it's a lasting memory for him.

"It's something I'll never forget. A sea of people moving in both directions." 

The bridge's 20th birthday coincides with his 20-year anniversary as an employee of Strait Crossing Ltd.

"It's still weird to think that I've been here for twice as long as I was on the ferries."

James Hagen says Borden-Carleton became a quieter community once the bridge was open for business. (CBC)

He said that it was a transition for him when he first started, taking less pay than he was making with Marine Atlantic, but the adjustment period didn't last long.

"It's a good place to work. I like it here."

"It's really surreal. It just seems like yesterday that we started here."

With files from Steve Bruce

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