The original Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened to the public 66 years ago today, linking the fragmented Tampa Bay region together and transforming the west coast of Florida.
The $22-million Skyway stretched from St. Pete’s Maximo Point at the end of 34th Street S to Terra Ceia Island to U.S. 41 in Manatee County. At the time, it was the longest unbroken bridge in the U.S. and one of the longest in the world.
The then-St. Petersburg Times celebrated by printing a thick special section that weighed five pounds and contained about 330 articles and 460 pictures. The Sept. 6, 1954 front page story called it “the day they pulled the cork on Pinellas County’s bottleneck of a quarter century.”
The original Sunshine Skyway
Before the Skyway, St. Petersburg was an isolated, sleepy fishing town. To access it from the south, travelers could take the Bee Line Ferry, though only one to two thousand cars could reportedly make it across each day. The only way to drive to St. Petersburg from the south was to take U.S. 41 north from Manatee to Hillsborough, then drive across the Gandy Bridge.
For three decades, people kicked around the dream of using a tunnel or bridge to cross the bay. And for three decades, many said it couldn’t be done.
When the original Skyway was built, it had one span and two lanes. In 1971, traffic prompted construction of a second span carrying southbound motorists west of the original span.
The Skyway wasn’t just a way to make things easier for locals. It opened up the Pinellas and Manatee beaches to travelers, said historian Bill DeYoung, author of “Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down."
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Naming the Skyway
The St. Pete Junior Chamber of Commerce and what was then-called the State Road Department held a nationwide naming contest. In just a month, more than 20,000 entries flooded in from every state ― and even Canada. A panel of local judges sifted through each submission.
Entries weren’t allowed to reference geographic regions or names of people. Notable rejects included the Magic Carpet, Loveland Span, Pearly Gates, the Glory Road, Alladin’s Ramp and the Garden of Eden.
Eleven of the top 20 finalists included the prefix “sun." The runner up: Suncoast Skyline.
The winning name came from Indian Rocks Beach resident Virginia Seymour, the owner of Gulf Ranch Resort. Three days before the bridge opened, Seymour was given a plaque, an engraved watch and a painting of the bridge at the Coliseum’s Sunshine Skyway Dedication Ball held on Sept. 3, 1954.
The day the Skyway opened
A grand opening ceremony christening the Sunshine Skyway Bridge took place early in St. Petersburg on the morning of Sept. 6, 1954. Ice cream and soda vendors lined the streets and dignitaries and politicians gathered to speak. Ten “bridge beauties,” representing 10 counties along Florida’s west coast, took a turn adding oversized counties into a massive Florida map.
Then, the motorcade started: At 9:25 a.m., 500 cars lined up to drive from the Pinellas side of the bridge and paraded across the Skyway for the first time. A dozen planes and two helicopters flew over the triumphant inaugural drive.
When the motorcade made it to Bradenton on the other side, they held the opening ceremony all over again.
“It was a wonderful, thrilling experience,” wrote Times reporter Tom Harris. “The kind of a thing that happens only once in a lifetime, and was well worth the effort of rolling out of bed at 8.a.m."
After the motorcade, the bridge was opened to the public. Tolls were suspended from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on that first day.
Toll operators counted 15,086 cars on that first day. More than 50,000 people were estimated to have journeyed across the bridge that day, whether they rode in buses and trucks or biked and walked across.
“People who never before had been to Palmetto, Bradenton, Sarasota or St. Petersburg got acquainted with these cities yesterday for the first time and good neighborliness reigned,” wrote Harris.
Hundreds of boats gathered around the bridge to celebrate in the blue waters of the bay. The Aquamaniacs Ski Club performed a water ballet. There was a dance at the Bradenton Municipal Pier and the Miss Sunshine Skyway pageant was held at Anna Maria Island.
Even the Bee Line Ferry got a special sendoff as it made its final run that night.
It wasn’t all fun, though. Tampa’s David Carpenter had the unfortunate honor of being the first to get a flat tire on the Skyway, and Tampa bridge worker Richard F. Spivey was involved in the first accident. Those misfortunes came after a long wait to get on the bridge.
North of the Skyway, traffic stopped completely as thousands sat in their cars on 34th Street and Tangerine and Lakeview Avenues, waiting for their turn to take the historic drive. Cars backed up in Manatee County as well.
In the Times, Lowell Brandle wrote in a column that it was “the biggest traffic jam in the history of Pinellas and Manatee counties."
The Skyway by the numbers
- 4,100,000 cubic yards of sand were dredged to form the causeways. This would have been enough to cover half of Pass-a-Grille.
- 12,104,000 pounds of structural steel and 8,536,700 pounds of reinforcing steel were used to build the Skyway, as well as 115,980 cubic yards of concrete.
- $21,250,000 were supplied from a revenue bond issue from the State Improvement commission.
- 544 people worked on the bridge.
- 11 of the Skyway’s 15 miles were suspended over water.
- 5 bridges linked together six sections.
- 2 lanes were on the original single span bridge. There was no passing.
- 45 mph was the maximum speed limit. The minimum speed was 35 mph.
- 3 counties bridged: The Skyway crossed through Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
- $1.75 was the original toll for a single passenger car making a one-way trip. Pedestrians and bicyclists paid a 50-cent toll.
A terrifying drive
Tom Harris wrote that the ride was thrilling, especially ascending the rise up to the 150.5-foot high center span.
“This is more delightful for Floridians than anyone else because Florida has few respectable hills in its whole area," he wrote. “To drive a car above sea level was something natives, unless they live near Brooksville or Tallahassee, said they had never experienced before.”
The 5-degree incline conjured a feeling of going up a roller coaster, said historian Bill DeYoung.
“You’d go up so slow up the side with this feeling of dread knowing you would go really fast down the other side,” he said. "You couldn’t see anything — it was so steep.”
Drivers would white-knuckle up to the highest point, where the road turned to metal grating. Then came the low rumble of tires thumping over the bumps. During the day, passengers could look down though the grate at churning waves splashing below.
At night came complete darkness. There were no lights on the original bridge.
“That sense of, ‘I’m really out here, I’m hurtling though the universe all alone and I’m 150 feet over the water,’" said DeYoung. “Yeah, it was a little terrifying.”
The original Skyway’s flaws were exposed to devastating effect 25 years, eight months and three days later.
The freighter Summit Venture, blinded by a storm, crashed into the bridge’s support columns at 7:33 a.m. on May 9, 1980. A 1,200-foot span of the southbound bridge collapsed into the bay, and 35 people lost their lives.
The 1980 disaster rendered that span unusable. Driving on the remaining northbound span would become even more nerve-wracking.
“You look over and there’s the broken bridge right here," DeYoung said. “It was this painful reminder of what happened, like ‘There but for the grace of God go I.'”
Over 400 members of the “I Love St. Pete” Facebook group shared their memories of the bridge. Some of the submissions:
- Kevin Waters: “I was a child going over that thing and it was by far the scariest bridge I’ve ever been over. It was called the skyway for a reason and you literally felt like you were going into the sky.”
- Debbie Barnard: “I remember my dad taking us for a drive over and back, just for the fun of it! One time, at night, he turned off the headlights just as we reached the grating! Scared the crap out of me and my brother!!”
- Janet Schultz Helmick: “Was always scared as a child when going over the bridge because you could not see the other side. I was always afraid it would end at the top. The most eerie time, though, was after the wreck. I was in high school and we were driving in a school bus to a game in Sarasota. Seeing the other side of the bridge ... and then NOT ... sent chills down my spine!”
- Annee Marin: “Oh my, so many memories! My grandfather, who was a Greek immigrant, used to take my little brother and I tomato picking in Ruskin via the Skyway. Grandpa would always make an adventure of it and bellow, “Is everybody happy?” when his 1962 Studebaker reached the span, to which we would respond merrily, “Yeah!” As a native Floridian, that will always be one of my favorite childhood memories!”
- Suzanne Marsh: “I always loved going over bridges and remember the sound of the grates when driving over. Also remember driving over and looking at the lost part of the bridge and the water below. I was too young to be driving then and had time to really look. It was terrible sight. Remember where I was when I heard the news too.”
The new Skyway
A new bridge opened seven years after the disaster. While the Skyway we use today is a much different bridge, its name still conjures memories of the 1980 Skyway disaster.
The new Skyway hulked over the original bridge, peaking at 430 feet tall. About 60,000 vehicles drive over it every day. It remains one of the most iconic local landmarks in the area.
The Tampa Theatre will host the premiere of a new documentary, “The Skyway Bridge Disaster,” on Sept. 15. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.
“That bridge is our mountain,” said historian Will Michaels. “It’s the highest point in the whole area here in Tampa Bay.”
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which uses material compiled from Times archives.