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Spectacular Sunshine Skyway replaced ferryboats in 1954

When the first Sunshine Skyway opened in 1954, St. Petersburg dreamed of a vast expansion of tourism, with motor traffic funneling southward through the city as well as northward to local and gulf beaches destinations.

Boosters bid farewell to the Bee Line Ferry, which had operated from the foot of Fourth Street S in Pinellas Point, taking cars and passengers on a brief ride across Tampa Bay to Palmetto.

The romantic ferryboats could carry only a fraction of the traffic the Skyway was capable of handling. Besides, the big boats weren't always on schedule and it took an hour or more to drive on and off, whereas a car could zip over the Skyway in half an hour or less. (Confession: I liked the ferryboats and used to drive down to Pinellas Point just to see them dock.)

There was an alternative. You could drive an extra 50 miles around Tampa to reach the Bradenton-Sarasota side and points south. Even though gas was cheap, auto air conditioning was rare, so the prospect of an extra 50 miles of land driving wasn't attractive.

What the Skyway was expected to do was to bring motorists down U.S. 19 to the bridge in order to get a view of "natural Florida" as they drove south, passing picturesque fishing spots and beaches. Indeed, fishing catwalks were strung along the route of the Skyway, a complex of six causeways and five bridges capped by the center span.

In the days before Interstates 75 and 275, a motorist could start at the beginning of U.S. 19, in Erie, Pa., and travel directly south to the Gulf Coast Highway at Pensacola and then 500 miles through Florida to reach the Skyway.

The $21 million bridge, which opened on Sept. 6, 1954, was a technological marvel, ranked as one of the longest over-water crossings in the world. The center span was built of prestressed concrete, stronger than conventional concrete. Nearly 4 million cubic yards of fill were pumped from the bay bottom to form the causeways.

Opening day celebrations were held in St. Petersburg. There were souvenirs and speeches and bands, and the public got to drive across the bridge for free. Thereafter there was a $1.75 toll for each crossing (later lowered to a dollar).

There were some people — visitors and locals — who swore they would never cross the towering main span. It was either fear of heights or the fear that winds at the top would buffet their cars.

The project was a big deal because the west coast of Florida had waited nearly 30 years for the bridge. And it paid off : Ten Gulf Coast counties benefitted from the Skyway, not only in tourism but in big population growth.

The bridge also put St. Petersburg at the center of Major League Baseball's spring training. The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg in those days, and eight other teams were in cities at each end of the bridge.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus then made its winter headquarters in Sarasota. And, of course, Lido Beach and other attractions also beckoned. Three hours down the Tamiami Trail was the once-impenetrable Everglades, although driving the 1920s vintage route all the way through Collier County to Miami could be a challenge because deep, water-filled ditches lined both side of the road.

The Skyway proved its engineers right. It formed a successful link in the state's transportation network. There was one flaw. The center span of the original bridge was balanced on piers over the ship channel. That made it vulnerable to any accident involving one or all of the piers.

During a blinding rainstorm on May 9, 1980, a freighter struck one of the piers and knocked part of the southbound span into the water. A Greyhound bus, six cars and a pickup truck went into the water as well, killing 35 people. For the next seven years, southbound and northbound motorists shared the same span while a new Skyway — stronger, higher and better protected — was built.

Driving across Tampa Bay today remains a spectacular ride across an architecturally splendid bridge.

Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, was a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965.

Spectacular Sunshine Skyway replaced ferryboats in 1954 10/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 6:30pm]
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