Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography Contributed From Ed Gore & Ronnie Holden
When Sunset Beach Mayor Ron Klein was a volunteer firefighter for the Sunset Beach Fire Department, he knew the stress that accompanied a fire call to the island.
“They said it took three minutes to open the bridge,” the mayor says, adding that the fire station is on the mainland section of Sunset Beach. “A fire can double in size in three minutes. You could get stuck on either side.”
He points out that the mechanism of the old pontoon swing bridge prevented it from stopping and retracing its path. “Once you start it, you can’t go back,” Klein says.
Jo O’Keefe, an amateur marine naturalist and photographer, used to schedule her walks on the island to avoid bridge closings and labeled the Sunset Beach bridge “the pulse” of the town. “It controlled life on Sunset Beach,” she says.
Anyone wishing to cross the Intracoastal Waterway on the old Sunset Beach bridge to reach North Carolina’s southernmost beach understands these observations. Despite any inconveniences, a number of residents and visitors didn’t mind the bridge. They wanted to keep the 500-foot, one-lane bridge because it was unique and said to be the only operating bridge of its kind on the East Coast.
“The bridge was built at shops behind (what is now) Twin Lakes Seafood Restaurant,” says Edward M. “Ed” Gore, Sr., whose father, Mannon C. Gore, built the bridge and developed Sunset Beach. “I think that the initial bridge that dad put in he never intended to be there for 52 years.”
Some residents didn’t want to surrender the image the bridge had created for the town. They formed the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association to keep the bridge and sued the town when the North Carolina Department of Transportation scheduled right-of-way acquisition for a new bridge. The town countersued, and the controversy raged for 25 years. The final judgment favored the town.
The pontoon bridge will relinquish its control when the new, 65-foot high-rise bridge opens in late October 2010.
“The bridge has been very kind to the town,” Gore says. “Residents and visitors like it. Yet, its time has come.”
In July, a group of local residents formed the Old Sunset Beach Bridge Preservation Society to try to save parts of the old bridge.
“The Old Sunset Beach Bridge Preservation Society is not an outgrowth of the ‘block the bridge’ group,” says Ann Bokelman, co-chair of the society. “We knew it was possible to save the bridge. It’s an icon of Sunset Beach. Everyone knows the bridge.”
Her co-chairs agree.
“You can’t think of Sunset Beach without thinking of the bridge,” says Karen Dombrowski. “It’s an icon of our community.”
Chris Wilson recalls her first encounter with the bridge when her children, now in their thirties, were in grade school. The family had come to visit the island, but when it came time to leave, the bridge was closed for repairs.
“[The day] turned into an adventure,” she says, and told how the family investigated several facets of the island and discovered Bird Island. “We loved that day,” says Wilson. “We had to come back.”
Wilson has lived on the island for four years. “We’re sorry the bridge will be gone,” she says. “We feel we’re home when we see the bridge.”
The Bridge Preservation Society developed a Facebook page and a website at www.theoldbridge.com and worked to preserve parts of the bridge to keep its memory alive.
At a workshop in August 2010, Sunset Beach council members voted to save parts of the old bridge, including the bridge tender’s house, ramps and the center span. The Old Sunset Beach Bridge Preservation Society suggested that 5 acres of property along the Waterway, appraised at $3.75 million, be purchased and a park established where the bridge can be a showpiece. But in early October 2010, the Sunset Beach council members voted on the matter again and elected to save only the bridge tender’s house. Klein cites a variety of reasons, including expense, maintenance and storage, for the council’s decision not to hold on to other parts of the bridge.
Klein says that details will be forth coming about where the council plans to put the bridge tender’s house.
Gore believes that people will accept the new high-rise bridge.
“The new bridge is a graceful,beautiful structure that the townwill love and visitors will learnto love as they come back totheir favorite beach,” Gore says.“It gives a view of the marshesthey haven’t experienced before.Sunset Beach will still be thatunique place where everyone will wantto live and visit.”
The name of the new bridge, Mannon C. Gore, is appropriate, Klein says.
“It is named after the individual whobought the island and starteddeveloping it as a family town insteadof a tourist town. He and his son are responsible for what it is today—domestic rather than tourist.”