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‘Brats’ energize N.Y. town’s waterfront

Youth volunteers’ good works make Phoenix a welcome stop for upstate boaters looking for a respite

Youth volunteers’ good works make Phoenix a welcome stop for upstate boaters looking for a respite

There are many towns on the New York State Canal System that provide amenities to cruising boaters. The “Bridge House Brats” try to make Phoenix, N.Y., the most enjoyable.

The town of Phoenix lies at the south end of the OswegoRiver section of New York’s ErieBargeCanal where Lock No. 1 and a lift bridge are located. This branch, known as the OswegoCanal, connects the ErieBargeCanal to the Port of Oswego on LakeOntario and is one of the busiest sections of the system.

At the turn of the century, Phoenix was a prospering manufacturing center largely because of its location on the busy waterway. In 1916 a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the town adjacent to the canal where many factories and businesses were located. The town never fully recovered and over time became a bedroom community for nearby cities.

Activity on the canal also declined over the years as railroads, and later the trucking industry, took over the transportation of goods that once moved by water.

Phoenix remains a quiet little town today, but during the summer months the canal front is bustling. The town has become a favorite stopover for recreational boaters because of an ambitious bunch of kids known as the “Bridge House Brats.”

About 10 years ago, locals Carole Sponable and Cathy Lee, who were noted for their work with youth in the community, came up with the idea of putting together a group of kids to tackle useful projects during summer vacation. The bridge house, once the control station for raising and lowering a drawbridge over the canal, was available and became headquarters for the endeavor.

The new lift bridge is now operated by the lockmaster. A marine pump-out, welcome station and canal wall dockage were already in place and turned over to these eager youngsters by a volunteer group of senior citizens who had been manning the facility on a part-time basis.

The youngsters decided their group should be known as the “Bridge House Brats,” although by any comparison they are far from “brats.” They are all volunteers between the ages of 8 and 18 who have to fill out an application, get approval from a parent or guardian, and agree to conduct themselves according to a set of rules before being considered for the job. While on duty, they are required to wear an official red Bridge House Brat shirt, which they have to purchase.

Once school is out for the summer, the volunteers arrive with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Not only do they provide much-appreciated services, but they also learn a great deal about dealing with the public, teamwork, responsibility and waterfront safety — including man overboard drills.

From May until early September they man the docks, the Bridge House museum and the adjacent HenleyPark. Their day starts at 7:30 a.m. and officially ends at 4 p.m., but when things get busy you will find them putting in some extra time.

Sponable and Lee, the originators of the program, supervise the group along with some local help from parents and adult volunteers. A number of the former brats, some into their 20s, return to offer their help as well.

Lee claims the volunteers are in charge, making many decisions regarding their services. For boaters, these services include welcoming visitors, handling lines and offering free coffee, lemonade and iced tea. Boat washing, dog walking, boat sitting, holding tank pump-out, errand running, etc., are also available — all free. The facility offers overnight dockage with water and electric hookups, also free of charge. Meals are available from the menus of local restaurants, and are picked up and delivered to boats or to dockside tables.

In addition to all this, the kids are in charge of museum tours and cleanup, painting of the bridge house and equipment, keeping the Phoenix business district clean, painting storefronts when requested, planting and watering flowers, and emptying trash barrels. Local nursing homes often schedule visits to the park, where the residents are treated to lunch and also personal tours, some via wheelchair, of the lock operation and passing boats.

Concerts are hosted under the pavilion in adjacent HenleyPark that draw a local crowd, along with transient boaters. All of the tables, chairs, planters, picnic tables, lanterns, bird feeders and birdhouses, and garbage cans, along with a refrigerator and a coffeemaker have been purchased by the Brats. The entire operation, which is chartered under the authority of the Phoenix Community and Youth Council, is funded by donations received from boaters and visitors.

Don Pakkala and his wife, Nancy, of Newfield, N.Y., own a 33-foot 1940 Richardson sedan cruiser named White Cap, which they have owned and cruised for more than 30 years, logging more than 25,000 miles downrivers, lakes and the Intracoastal Waterway between Canada and Florida. A published writer and photographer, Pakkala restores antique and classic boats.