Lift the Sunshine Skyway • St Pete Catalyst Bridge

This color illustration of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge was sold as a souvenir in 1954. From the author’s collection.

Dan McCarty was dead.

The 31st Governor of Florida suffered a massive heart attack in February 1953, and seven months later he was permanently removed from office.

That meant Charley E. Johns, president of the state Senate and one of Florida’s most controversial figures in politics, was acting governor when the Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened over the holiday weekend. of Labor, 1954.

Johns was a segregationist, supporter of the death penalty and, later in his career, an architect of the infamous Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, which “investigated” and persecuted gays, radicals, academics and suspected Communists.

Johns was never elected governor; he ran in the next election, but was defeated by the increasingly charismatic (and stubbornly anti-segregationist) State Senator LeRoy Collins.

September 6, 1954: Acting Governor Charley E. Johns inaugurates the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Nonetheless, Johns’ most historic freeze frame was captured on September 6, 1954, when he was the top state official at the time at the opening of the state-of-the-art 15-mile bridge crossing the section. Lower Tampa Bay.

The two-lane crossing, valued at $ 22 million, replaced the aging Bee Line Ferry, a fleet of big-bellied boats that carried automobiles and their passengers, from Pinellas Point on the north side to Piney Point in the Manatee County. Each one-way trip took 45 minutes.

Four million cubic meters of sand was dredged from the bay to create the causeways on either side of the Four Mile Water Bridge, which was the first structure of its kind in the world to be constructed of concrete reinforced with steel bars. steel frame. The causeway reached its peak, 149.5 feet in the air, directly above the shipping channel leading to the ports of Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

The bridge takes its name from a competition sponsored by the St. Petersburg Jaycees, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Department of Transportation (then known as the Road Board) and the St. Petersburg weather.

Over 20,000 suggestions were received, from which 20 finalists were chosen. Eleven of them contained the word “sun”.

Indian Rocks Beach Motel owner Virginia Seymour imagined “Sunshine Skyway”; at the September 3 dedication dinner dance at St. Pete Coliseum, she received an engraved plaque, wristwatch and a framed painting of “her” bridge.

With the addition of this beautiful bridge, the new Gulf Coast Highway will serve to make the beautiful resorts in your state more accessible to thousands of car visitors, and I’m sure the bridge will be an addition. valuable to our national highway program..

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to Charley E. Johns, July 20, 1954

From left to right: Van Vleet, Diallina, Melton and Johns.

Labor Day weekend was a whirlwind of celebrations. More than 5,000 people – one of the largest crowds in St. Petersburg history – crowded into Al Lang Stadium (then known as Al Lang Field) on 4e hear speeches from Johns, former Governor Fuller Warren, US Senator Spessard Holland, Road Board Chairman Cecil Webb, Collins and retired General James A. Van Fleet, who, like Holland, had grown up in Polk County. Pop opera singer James Melton, another Floridian, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

September 5 was a Sunday, with an unconditional religious ceremony at Al Lang Field. After a gospel-favorites performance by actress and singer Edith Wharton, who played Aunt Jemima in pancake TV commercials, Bishop William C. Martin, president of the National Council of Churches of Christ in America, a delivered the opening speech.

And then it was Monday September 6th. Labor Day. At 10 a.m., in front of Administrative Building 1 (the toll booth) on the Pinellas side, Johns officially opened the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The Northeast High School band performed.

All the weekend dignitaries were there, as well as – for reasons apparently lost to history – reigning Miss Greece, Rika Diallina, who symbolically gave Johns a small wooden cutout of the new bridge. Behind them was a giant puzzle representing the 10 counties that would now be “forever linked” by the Sunshine Skyway; by inserting this last piece, Johns completed the picture.

Ten young women in red swimsuits – “the beauties of the bridge”, the Times called them – stood at attention behind the acting governor as flashes erupted. Each wore a yellow crown with the name of each of the 10 connected counties.

The entire ceremony lasted less than half an hour, after which the dignitaries piled into specially-appointed cars for a procession of cars heading south, across the Skyway. Leading the way was singer Melton, a renowned collector of vintage cars, driving a restored 1909 Rockwell Hansom Cab. Rika Diallina was riding a shotgun.

Again, on the manatee side.

At the Palmetto tollbooth, the whole exercise was repeated, with the beauties of the bridge bringing 10 symbolic ribbons to Diallina, which she combined and then handed to Johns. “I present to you the united ties of the state of Florida,” she proclaimed as flashes erupted again.

The speeches were more or less the same, except for Holland’s joke to the gathered southerners: “It’s worth $ 1.75 just for the view from this height.”

At 11 a.m., the Sunshine Skyway was officially opened to traffic. For opening day, the Road Board waived the charge of $ 1.75 per crossing. Drivers could make the trip, in both directions, as many times as they wanted, for free.

At 11 p.m., the toll came into effect. Final result: 15,000 vehicles crossed in the first 12 hours.

The rest of the story

@ When the federal interstate highway system began to expand south in the early 1960s, plans were made to make the Sunshine Skyway Bridge an artery. Two-lane, however, the bridge was not eligible for federal dollars, so the Road Board announced a four-lane extension. Governor Haydon Burns, who was instrumental in Walt Disney’s cheapest purchase of Central Florida acreage for his “Southern Disneyland,” was aware that all roads – figuratively speaking – would soon lead. in Orlando. Burns accelerated a controversial $ 25 million bond issue to build a twin Sunshine Skyway, adjacent to the 1954 model, that would allow traffic to flow on two lanes in either direction. After some delays, including a costly miscalculation of exactly where the anchor piles should be driven into the substrate, the second span opened on May 19, 1971, the tape cut by Governor Reuben Askew. As with the first Skyway, the navigation channel, 800 feet wide between the main piers, carried massive sea traffic below, 365 days a year. Each bay was “protected” by a wall of two-by-four wooden planks nailed to wooden stilts.

@ In a 1978 St. Petersburg hours story, What could bring down the Skyway Bridge ?, Department of Transportation’s head of bridge maintenance, Jack Roberts, blithely dodged the question. “How far should we go to be our brother’s keeper?” he was quoted as saying. “Should we put armor on houses to protect them from planes?” Shouldn’t the ships themselves have some sort of backup system? They cross many bridges. It was later revealed that Roberts, at the time, was privately concerned with inspection reports that both spans showed significant wear, with cracks and worse in the concrete supports. Yet in a direct response to the main question of the story, he replied, “I would say an empty ship could do it. Some of them are very heavy.

@ An empty and very heavy ship (606 feet long and weighing just under 20,000 tons) bored Roberts on May 9, 1980. The freighter registered in Liberia M / V Summit Venture, in transit to the Port of Tampa, was overtaken by a sudden and violent gust just as it was due to pass, in an easterly direction, under the Twin Bridges. Within moments, the vessel’s radar was cut off and visibility was reduced to almost zero. The bow of the ship cut a southbound main span support – the 1971 edition – and over 1,200 feet of roadway, including the cantilevered bridge support and silver steel beams to 150 feet in the air – tumbled into Tampa Bay. The ship’s hastily deployed bow anchor prevented it – barely – from colliding with the northbound span as well. Thirty-five people, in seven cars and a passenger bus, were killed.

@ Traffic was rerouted, in both directions, to the intact 1954 bridge. For the next seven years, these two dilapidated and scaly lanes connected the north and south sides of the bay. The then governor, Bob Graham, recalled in an interview in 2012 the thinking that led to a replacement. “While there was a lot of nostalgia associated with the old bridge,” Graham said, “it was an old bridge. It was, at that time, over 30 years old – and it wasn’t the most elegant design. And it was a steel bridge over salt water, which is a recipe for a lot of corrosion. All of this argued not to fix the old bridge, but to build one. So I started telling people about a different type of bridge that would hold up better. Graham hired Tallahassee-based design company Figg & Muller to design a precast concrete segmental bridge, using a cable-stayed design in which the cables supporting the segmental bridge deck (raised carriageway) are laced through a “saddle system” in tall towers, called pylons. Engineer Jean Muller had pioneered this design on the Seine in his native France.

@ The $ 244 million bridge, 50 feet taller than the originals and with much wider roads, was inaugurated in February 1987 and opened to traffic on April 30 (it took that long to finish covering the cables the size of a tree trunk with bright yellow paint). More than $ 40 million has been spent on concrete islands – known as “dolphins” – to protect vulnerable pillars of the bridge from a collision with a ship. The remains of the two spans of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge were demolished in 1993, leaving four short segments, two on either side of the bay, to be used as fishing piers. Twelve years later, the “new” structure was officially renamed the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The story will be included in Vintage St. Pete Volume II: Legends, Places, Lifestyles, coming in December 2021 from St. Petersburg Press.

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