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PCR #171  (Vol. 4, No. 27)  This edition is for the week of June 30--July 6, 2003.
La Floridiana by Will Moriaty
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Getting From Here To There - - The Story of the Bee Line Ferry and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Part Two of Three

The Bee Line Ferry Company, which was the topic of last week's La Floridiana, began operations in 1924 ferrying automobiles and their passengers across Tampa Bay between Pinellas and Manatee Counties.

If a person wished to travel between these two points by land, such a trip would require up to an additional 49 miles of driving. Recognizing the burden that this put on motorists, the State of Florida began to consider building a bridge that would connect these two west coast locations.

In 1950, employees of the Bee Line Ferry company may have started to become a bit uneasy as the State Road Department of Florida (now the Florida Department of Transportation) began to send barges loaded with drag lines and pile drivers into Tampa Bay in order to construct a new causeway and bridge between Pinellas Point in St. Petersburg and Terra Ceia in Manatee County. They knew then that the once profitable and proud Bee Line Ferry would cease to exist not long after the new bridge and roadway would become available to the motoring public.

Cover of the circa 1958 "Sunshine Skyway" information brochure. The scribbling in blue ink on the upper right hand corner in cursive reads "1961- Drove across bridge and returned". I wonder who wrote that and if they are still alive. 1958 -- from the author's collection.
Just How Did People Get From Here By the Fall of 1954?
In the late summer and early fall of 1954 the ferry line's fears would be realized once the new causeway and its bridges were completed, extending U.S. Highway 19 (known locally as 34th Street South) across the southern mouth of Tampa Bay into Manatee County. In order to accommodate ships using the main channel into Port Tampa, Port Manatee, and the Port of Tampa, the main high level span of the bridge, actually located in an extended sliver of Hillsborough County, was built a full 150' above the surface of the Bay. Once this vital transportation artery was completed, the Bee Line Ferry would fade into oblivion after a thirty-year run, and the driving distance from St. Petersburg to Manatee County was reduced by 34 miles.

A new transportation era for Florida's West Coast was born and the super structure would itself become one of Florida's roadside attractions.

What's In A Name?
After four years and $22 million dollars, the first two-way span opened in September 1954. The St. Petersburg Jaycees sponsored a contest to name the new facility. Out of more than 20,000 entries in this contest, Virginia Seymour submitted the name "Sunshine Skyway" which was selected by the judges. In 1970, the main span bridge was named the "W.E. "Bill" Dean Bridge" after the Chief of Bridge Design for the State.

A Companion Is Built
In 1971 a sister span opened adjacent to the original bridge in order to accommodate increased traffic. Similar in design to the original span, the new span carried one-way two-lane traffic south bound, while the original span carried one-way two-lane traffic north bound.

Inset describes the "Facilities on the Sunshine Skyway" 1958 -- from the author's collection.
In a brochure that I procured from "Miami Mike" Hiscano at Floridana Fest in March 2003 (La Floridiana, PCR 154) on the Sunshine Skyway printed by the State Road Department Revenue Projects Division. The toll rates in December 1958 were $1.00 for all cars, station wagons, suburbans and motorcycles. 1-Axle trailers were $1.50, 2-Axle Trailers were $ 2.00, and Trucks and Buses were $1.50, for 2-Axle $2.25, for 3-Axle $3.00, for 4-Axle $3.75.

Skyway Amenities
The inset of the brochure discussed "Facilities on the Sunshine Skyway" boasting that: "The Sunshine Skyway" provides complete recreational resort facilities, including free picnic tables, outdoor ovens, bathhouses, restrooms, boat launching ramp. Basin, dock and concessions where refreshments, fishing bait and tackle may be obtained."

It went on to say that "The Skyway fills provide 11 miles of gulf and bay beaches for picnicking, bathing, and boating. This, with the 7 miles of bridge walkways, where bay and gulf fish abound, provides unexcelled sport for the lucky angler."

That's A Big Bridge!
In its time, the original Sunshine Skyway bridge was an engineering marvel. In order to accommodate ships in the main channel, the main span was poised 150' above the level of the water and had a distance of 864' between piers. The main span was 22,325 feet in length. Construction involved 6.5 miles of hydraulic fill, 4.9 miles of bridges and 7 miles of approach roads. The main span was itself over 4 miles in length.

Tragedy Befalls the Skyway Bridge
Not long after the Skyway was built, jumpers started to become a problem. There were even reports of a ghostly hitchhiking woman who motorists would pick up and by the time car was chugging up the main span, the woman vanished (as reported in La Floridiana, PCR 82)!

Nothing could, however, prepare the victims and the public for an horrendous event that started out as a system of disturbed weather in Texas that would become a raging torrent of rain that would blind a ship's captain to properly navigate the 864' main channel beneath the southbound Skyway Bridge, a little more than nine years after its completion.

"Mayday! Coast Guard, Mayday! Bridge Crossing is Down!"
It is 7:34 A.M. on Friday May 9, 1980. A squall line over Tampa Bay hampers phosphate freighter Captain John Lerro from being able to safely steer his ship, the "Summit Venture" . The 606' long ship collided with the main span south of the channel catapulting a portion of the span, along with six cars, a truck and a bus fifteen stories below into the choppy seas. 36 people would die as a result, with only one person, Mr. Wes MacIntire, whose 1974 Ford Courier puck up truck fell 150 feet , glanced off the side of the Summit Venture, and then sank 30' into the Bay, managed miraculously to survive. Obviously MacIntire and his truck were both built "Ford Tough'.

"Stop the traffic on the Skyway Bridge!"
In several horrific seconds, Lerro was aware of the devastation that was occurring. "The Skyway Bridge went down! Get all the emergency equipment out to the Skyway Bridge! The Skyway Bridge is down! This is a Mayday! Emergency situation! Stop the traffic on that skyway Bridge!" he frantically radioed to the U.S. Coast Guard. Helplessly he watched terrified as car after car and even a Greyhound bus, all caught in the blinding rainstorm and unaware of the span's collapse, plummet into the water, ending the lives of all but one occupant.

Like A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes
After the channel was cleared of debris and the original span was once again open to two-way traffic, then-Governor Bob Graham made the monumental decision to rebuild an entirely new Sunshine Skyway Bridge on January 31, 1981. The new Sunshine Skyway Bridge twin spans would be a world-class showpiece of engineering and aesthetic beauty beginning construction in June 1982 and acting as host to a ceremonial opening Skyway run on January 11, 1987.

Jeb Vader Up To His Old Tricks Again
St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler highlights Florida Governor Jeb Vader's total disdain toward Florida' voters and its constitution in the June 25, 2003 edition of the St. Petersburg Times article "Voters have their say; Governor just ignores them". Link to: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/06/25/Columns/Voters_have_their_say.shtml

Take A Trip Through Florida On the Tamiami Trail!
Link to this fascinating series about one of Florida's earliest premiere roadways, the Tamiami Trail, or U.S. Highway 41, which begins just south of Causeway Boulevard in Tampa and ends near the Sawgrass Freeway just west of Miami. Link to the St. Petersburg Times at: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/webspecials03/trail/

Next week we explore the dedication of the current Skyway twin spans, go over some facts and figures, check out the world's longest fishing piers and talk a little bit about my efforts to landscape this world-class transportation amenity, all in next week's "La Floridiana" in PCR!


"La Floridiana" is ©2003 by William Moriaty.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2003 by Nolan B. Canova.