Bridging Past and Present

by Oct 22, 2019Nonprofits, South Brunswick

To better reflect its mission, Old Bridge Preservation Society changes its name to Old Bridge Historical Society.

To better reflect its mission, Old Bridge Preservation Society changes its name to Old Bridge Historical Society.

The island from 1958 to 2010. It was the town’s heartbeat.

Sunset Beach resident Karen Dombrowski remembers a time when yachts and sailboats navigated the intracoastal waterway anticipating the Old Bridge opening – ten or more boats, waiting in line heading back to Florida. She called it “the changing of north to south” and it happened in October. It was always fun to see the goats on the adjacent island.

“I never felt inconvenienced by the Old Bridge. It was my excuse to be late for church if the bridge was open,” chuckles Karen.

Ron Lim remembers visiting Sunset Beach with the grand kids. “I hoped the bridge would be open so the kids could see the structure open and close….it was special to them,” says Ron. The history of the Old Bridge was unique. Mannon C. Gore purchased the island in 1955, when Beach Drive was sand. He worked designing a pontoon swing bridge, building a causeway, and planning a town for several years.

The pontoon swing bridge consisted of a WWII surplus self-propelled barge (airtight cannisters) which served as a means for vehicles to reach the island. Gore’s home was adjacent to the bridge. From 1958 to 1961, people honked their horns or flashed headlights, coming and going – a signal for Gore to open the bridge.

Smitten with the breathtaking sunsets, Gore renamed the island Sunset Beach (formerly Bald Beach).

The State of North Carolina took over operation and maintenance of the bridge in 1961. Using Gore’s basic design, another pontoon swing bridge was built. Updates to the bridge were made in 1984, but a future bridge was planned due to safety concerns and access to the island, as well as increasing boat traffic.

The structure noted many bridge operators over the years. The most recent to operate controls in the Tender House was Roger McPherson. The Department of Transportation didn’t inform anyone, including Roger, when the Old Bridge was closing. They feared there would be a line of people waiting for their last sentimental drive over the bridge. In November 2010, the new Mannon C. Gore Bridge opened for traffic. Immediately after, the DOT informed Roger to close the old bridge. The anticipated event went out with a whisper.

A group of women felt the single-lane bridge was the icon of Sunset Beach and rallied to preserve its heritage. Karen Dombrowski, Ann Bokelman, and Chris Wilson formed the Old Bridge Preservation Society in the summer of 2010. After a long struggle to save the bridge, a 110 feet section (including both ramps, the middle span and the Tender House) was purchased from English Construction for $1. The company relocated the bridge to its current location on picturesque Shoreline Drive – property owned by Clarice and Ronnie Holden.

In the first few years, the society raised more than $50,000 from donations, thus enabling the women to restore the Tender House, and open it as a museum in 2014.

There are many original items in the Tender House – the desk, radio, electrical control box (gates and siren), OSHA safety books, boat logs, the central board, multiple tally denominator, report of ‘draw’ openings and traffic surveys, and other memorabilia. There’s even a letter from Chuck Franco, NCDOT, to the Sunset Swing Bridge Operators thanking them for keeping the ‘ole gal running.

“We get an interesting mix of people who come to visit the bridge. Many come to visit an old friend. They enjoy revisiting a special place, reminiscing with their children who weren’t old enough to remember, or friends who never got to cross the Old Bridge. Others wish to see the building interior. Some come out of curiosity. The Old Bridge was an iconic symbol of the place they loved,” Ann says. “Crossing the bridge meant you were on your way to relax and have fun. My husband and I always considered it a speed bump. It reminded us to let go of everyday cares and stresses so we could reset and recharge in this special place.”

Visitor testimonials are preserved in albums in the Tender House. One such memory is from Peter Lucas – “So long old friend – we’ll miss you. You brought a warmth and personality that got all of us into the ‘beach mood’ upon arrival.”

Another from Phillip Morris says, “As I sit and think of all the times over the past 35 years, I’ve visited Sunset Beach, the sound and feel of ‘The Bridge’ take over me. There is no better moment than driving up to the bridge knowing that Sunset Beach is just on the other side. The drive across greets us with the familiar clickety clack of boards underneath the vehicle. I am going to miss it.”

The Old Bridge even served as a backdrop for Denis Catalano to propose to his girlfriend Jennifer.

They reminisced about hearing the horns sound, the arms dropping, as the Bridge Tender winked at them.

With all the memories and history tied to the beloved structure, current board members Ron Lim, Ann Bokelman and Karen Dombrowski felt this year was the time to connect the Old Bridge’s past with present. On May 15, 2019, the Old Bridge Preservation Society moved to officially change its name to Old Bridge Historical Society. The mission statement was written by Karen Dombrowski.

~ Bridging our history and future through education and preservation ~

“The word bridge has several meanings. One of them is to connect two points. We are connecting the past and present at the Old Bridge. The new name accurately reflects our purpose and what we wish to continue emphasizing in our organization. This is part of our mission and service to the community,” say the board members.

To celebrate the change, the public was invited to a formal ribbon cutting at the Old Bridge Museum and Interpretive Center on May 29 at which time the new name and logo was announced. A formal reception for guests on the Old Bridge followed.

If you’d like to see how you can get involved as a volunteer, help create new exhibits or participate in a fundraising event, email theoldbridgesb@gmail.com.

The Old Bridge Historical Society (formerly Old Bridge Preservation Society) / 109 Shoreline Drive W. Sunset Beach / (910) 363-6585 / theoldbridge.org

 

Photography by Sheree K. Nielsen

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