Story by Hilary Brady
Photography by Keith Ketchum
Sunset Beach has long been known to residents and tourists for its relaxed, slow-paced, small-town feel. And for more than a half-century, the unique bridge providing access to the charming island community has reflected that treasured character. The historic one-lane SunsetBeach Bridge forces drivers to stop for several moments to allow the opposing traffic to pass. It forces them to slow their pace, and enjoy the gorgeous water views while they’re at it. For many, this defines what Sunset Beach living is all about. The Sunset Beach Bridge was built in 1961 by the developer of Sunset Beach, Manon Gore. At one point in time, passersby honked their car horn two times near Manon’s home, alerting him to come and open the bridge.
Now, the 500-foot long wooden and steel pontoon barge, or swing bridge, opens through use of a cable and pulley system operated by a full-time, on site bridge tender. Every day, at the top of every hour between 7 am and 9 pm, traffic at each end of the access comes to a halt while the bridge opens and swings to the side to allow water traffic to pass. Throughout the day, if a commercial boat approaches, the bridge will be opened on demand for that boat only.
Because the bridge is built on a pontoon, the driving surface rises and falls with the tide. At high tide, the bridge has a slight incline in the center. During low tide, the structure slopes slightly downward. As if the pontoon structure itself isn’t unique enough, the little white bridge-tenders’ house that sits atop the bridge adds charming character as well. The bridge is the only one of its kind still in operation on the East Coast. It’s a cherished landmark, but it’s unable to provide functionality for the current needs of this growing island.
Measuring 5.1 square miles and with nearly 3,000 housing units at the last census count almost ten years ago, Sunset Beach continues to grow significantly in both population and popularity. More people bring more businesses and more resorts, which bring more traffic. According to the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT), the swing bridge is used by more than 7,000 vehicles per day. That’s a lot of weight for an antique wooden pontoon bridge.
The swing bridge is approved to accommodate 24,000 pounds. The fire trucks, which reside on the mainland and drive to the island in emergencies, range in weight from 30,000 to 46,000 pounds. With the safety of the fire and rescue personnel at risk, island residents are also in serious danger.
The swing bridge poses a hazard not only in emergencies but also in day-today operations. Over the past decade alone, there have been numerous accidents involving the bridge. Cars, trucks and boats have all misjudged the bridge, ending up damaged and in the waterway. A barge pummeled into the bridge, removing a portion of the structure. A pick-up truck once attempted to beat the bridge opening, speeding past the barricades, only to end up in the water. And cars have raced through the stoplight, attempting to save time, but succeeding only in getting wet.
Over time, it became apparent that it was necessary to update this longtime landmark. Locals fought the development of a new bridge in order to maintain the historic character of SunsetBeach’s entry. But after nearly 40 years of recommendations from the NCDOT, the state finally won its case. To the dismay of some, but the delight of many, construction began on a new bridge in March 2008 to bring safety and efficiency up to speed for this booming island community.
The new Sunset Beach Bridge is a more modern design. A 65-foot-tall arc bridge, which does not open through draw or swing, was chosen because it will better accommodate land and water traffic. There will no longer be a need for a bridge keeper, nor will there be a need to stop traffic in either direction as the old swing bridge required. The new half-mile long bridge will accommodate two lanes, each measuring 12 feet wide with 5 foot shoulders for pedestrians and bikes. There will be a constant flow of traffic to and from the island, as well as on the Intracoastal Waterway.
According to the NCDOT, although the $31 million contract awarded for construction seems pricey, the new high-rise bridge promises to be more economical to build and maintain, not to mention much safer and more efficient than other options.
The new Sunset Beach Bridge is slated to open by December of 2010. Residents and tourists will soon be able to access their quiet community more safely, and with plenty of time before their groceries spoil. And if you find yourself missing the historic character of the old wooden bridge, be sure to stop and enjoy the fishing pier that will likely be made to memorialize the old swing structure.