Preserving the Past: Old Bridge Preservation Society
By Jo Ann Mathews
By Ronnie Holden
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” Ann Bokelman, Karen Dombrowski and Chris Wilson understand what Walt Disney meant when he said that. These three Sunset Beach residents fulfilled their dream by founding the Old Bridge Preservation Society.
A landmark since 1958, the bridge represented serenity, charm and character to some but was obsolete, unsafe and frustrating to others. After decades of proposals, studies and lawsuits, a high-rise bridge replaced the old bridge in autumn 2010.
The “bridge ladies,” the name Ann, Karen and Chris have acquired, believed the bridge was a symbol of Sunset Beach and its history, and the town would find a place for it. All three had spent several family vacations on the island and have priceless memories of them.
“The bridge was always our welcome,” Ann says. “We always called it our speed bump. It reminded us that nothing has to be in a hurry.”
“Crossing the bridge was unique. It had a charm. You slowed down,” Chris says.
“When you crossed it, you went to a place of beauty and tranquility and a place you’ve never been,” Karen adds.
However, when Chris and Karen met in May 2010 through their involvement with the Sunset at Sunset festival, they heard that plans were underway to demolish the bridge. They felt that thousands of visitors as well as many residents would object.
“We had no idea how to save it,” Chris says. “Our goal was to support the town in saving it.”
Chris, a Columbus, Ohio, native, had been an agent and office manager for an insurance company before she moved to the island six years ago with her husband, Jim.
Karen, who moved to Sunset Beach two years ago, had experience with a grassroots organization. While living in Tonawanda, New York, where she and her late husband, Rick, owned a wholesale fruit and produce business, she was active in Buffalo (New York) Olmsted Parks Conservancy. With the title of community outreach coordinator, she organized volunteers and fund-raising events.
The two realized no group had formed to prevent the demolition, so they contacted town officials. That’s when they learned that English Construction Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia, the firm that built the new bridge, agreed to remove it. By contract they owned it. The pair met with Mark Hackney, the project manager for English Construction, to discuss the possibility of giving the bridge to the town and moving it to land. The women were encouraged by the positive feedback.
In June 2010 Ann became an ally. She and her husband, Gordon, moved from Richmond, Virginia, four years ago. Former associate dean at a school of nursing in Petersburg, Virginia, Ann had led medical missions to Honduras for 11 years and organized fund-raisers for those missions.
With media attention increasing, the women decided to name the organization the Old Sunset Beach Bridge Preservation Society. They circulated petitions and eventually had more than 6,000 signatures.
“Because of the sentiment for the bridge, we felt the town wanted to save it,” Ann says. “Our letters of support were for the town to buy land for a park and move the bridge to it.”
In August 2010 the town council voted to save the bridge, but much to the bridge ladies’ dismay, the council reversed the decision in October.
“I couldn’t think of Sunset Beach without the bridge,” Chris says. “It was our symbol. It led us to serenity.”
The mantra for the three women became and will continue to be, “There is an answer. We just have to find out what it is.”
To prove this point, the ladies changed the name to the Old Bridge Preservation Society and applied for and received nonprofit status. They continued to believe the town would buy land for a park and have a place there for the bridge. As that possibility dimmed, Ronnie and Clarice Holden, Brunswick County natives, business owners and philanthropists, came forward and offered land they own on Shoreline Road.
“I had an opportunity to help preserve a part of the history of the coast I love so much,” Clarice says. “It was a small sacrifice to make to ensure that many generations will get the opportunity to peek into this window in Sunset Beach’s past.”
The Society has a renewable five-year lease and does not pay rent or have other obligations to the Holdens.
The high point for the women was in January 2011. They bought the bridge, which includes both ramps, the middle span and the tender house, for $1 from English Construction, and the company moved it to where it rests today.
Ann emphasizes that the town’s approval, also in January, to purchase 5.22 acres of land on the Intracoastal Waterway for a future park is a separate issue from the land where the bridge now rests. The bridge will not be moved from its current location.
“I applaud them for preserving the bridge,” says E. Wilson Sherrill, Sunset Beach councilman, and he commends the group for receiving nonprofit status. He explains that he made the motion to reverse the decision to save the bridge because he isn’t in favor of spending taxpayer money for it.
“I think the bridge is an icon,” he says. However, he adds, “It would be pouring money down a deep dark hole that has no bottom.”
The society is complying with town requirements to anchor the bridge. Other phases will include extensive landscaping, installing a foundation for the Tender House and restoring the Tender House, which will become a museum. All the log books, maps, control board and other equipment will be part of the museum.
Membership in the society is explained at its website, where visitors can also buy jewelry, shirts and a tote bag.
“We’ve found enough money to move forward,” Chris says.
The society and its 100 volunteers hope to continue their activities for children, including the Junior Bridge Tenders Club, talks by the past bridge tenders and other programs as they did during the summer of 2011.
Chris says the most gratifying feature was hearing stories from visitors. She tells of one woman who burst into tears then said, “We’re so happy it’s still here.”
A young boy put his arms on the bridge and said, “I miss you old bridge.” He told Karen that he plans to build bridges out of wood when he grows up.
Ann told of a young woman who said her boyfriend proposed to her on the bridge. He had arranged with the bridge tender to close both gates while they walked across the bridge.
“We think the entire project will be an asset to the community,” Ann says. “Our goal has always been to preserve the bridge. It has a very real role in the development, history and culture of Sunset Beach.”
Contact the Old Bridge Preservation Society
109 Shoreline Drive (across from the Sunset Beach fire station)
WHAT: Let’s Do Lunch & Fashion
WHEN: Tuesday, October 25, 11:30 am
WHERE: Twin Lakes Seafood Restaurant, 102 Sunset Boulevard, Sunset Beach
INFO: (910) 599-0034