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The Sunset Beach, NC, Pontoon Bridge

Jo O'Keefe Copyright 2015 All Rights Reserved


Until January 7, 2011, when its old bridge opened for the last time, Sunset Beach had the last floating or pontoon bridge crossing the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It allowed people to drive vehicles to and from the natural barrier island of Sunset Beach to the mainland. The only other pontoon bridge at that time on the east coast, closed to traffic in September 2010, crossed Sunset Lake in Brookfield, Vermont.

In 1955, reportedly for $55,000, Mannon C. Gore purchased the island from the Brooks Family and 400 acres on the mainland from the International Paper Company. At that time the island was called Bald Island. Gore renamed it Sunset Beach. Development of the barrier island soon began. In 1958 Gore built a wooden bridge with a floating section in the center that opened and closed on a hinge.

In 1961 the North Carolina Department of Transportation assumed responsibility for the roadway and constructed a new bridge to Sunset Beach. It was comprised of a bulkhead timber creosote barge with a bridge tender house and ramps.

Approximately every two years the barge was taken out of the water for two to three weeks at a time for repairs. The bridge was "dry-docked" for repairs in at least 1964, 1967, 1969 and 1971. Vehicles could not drive to the island during those periods.

In 1984 the center, floating, portion of the bridge was replaced. Eight metal barges were purchased for $182,000 from a Chester, South Carolina, company, Shugart Manufacturing, hence giving them the name "Shugart Barges." They were pinned together similar to the hinges of doors, two on each end and four grouped together in the center. A new bridge was built on top of them at the NCDOT Bridge Maintenance yard in Belville near Wilmington. The maintenance yard had dock and harbor facilities on the Brunswick River. After construction, the bridge was brought to Sunset Beach on the Brunswick River, then the Cape Fear River and finally via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The barges supported a 115-foot movable span that included 35-foot ramps at each end that fluctuated with the tides. A 2-story house rested on the barges along side the ramps and roadway. Motors, winches, pulleys, cables and other mechanical parts that opened and closed the bridge were housed on the lower level. In the upper level, the bridge tender monitored vessels on the waterway and operated the control panel. Four large counterweights in towers were outside on the platform. Portions of the bridge above the barges cost $130,357, for a total cost of $312,357.

To see the NC DOT work order for the 1984 bridge, click here. It was approved in September 1983. On August 2, 1984, the document was signed after the project was completed.

No portions of the 1958 and 1961 bridges remained after 1984. The 1958 bridge was demolished when the 1961 bridge was constructed. Reportedly after the 1984 bridge was in place, the 1961 bridge was sunk offshore to become an artificial reef.

The metal barges supported the bridge for 26 years. Exposure to salt water resulted in extensive corrosion. In 2006 marine-grade floatable foam was injected into the barges to prevent them from taking on water. The foam, although flammable, ended the routine welding of patches and the need for a pump system to remove water.

The 508-foot long swing bridge with the mainland entrance and exit from the new bridge far in the back. At 2,563 feet, the new bridge is five times as long.
A winch pulled two pairs of counterweights - four total - that operated on a fulcrum basis to raise the ramps when the bridge opened, enabling the bridge to swing free of the roadway. A second winch pulled one cable to open the bridge to make a lane in which vessels could pass. Afterward a third winch pulled a cable to close the bridge.
the bridge opening
the notorious cable
Cables operated by winches moved the bridge, one pulling it open to clear a lane for vessels, and a second cable pulling it closed for vehicular traffic..
The cable in these photos was used to pull the bridge open. In these images the bridge had just reached its open position. The bridge tender released the cable to allow it to sink to the bottom of the waterway while vessels passed.

Photo courtesy of the Town of Sunset Beach

A welcome sound for those waiting in vessels on the water was emitted from the bridge horn. The bridge tender sounded it to indcate that the bridge was fully open and that boats could pass through. The operator sounded the horn again before closing the bridge.

The pontoon bridge was protected from vessel damage through a fender system composed of pier-like extensions and cluster pilings. A pair of extensions on the island side and one on the northwest corner, combined with the bridge itself, defined the 90-foot-wide lane for vessels. Cluster pilings bounced boats back on course between the piers to prevent them from striking the bridge itself.
Vessels of "Snowbirds" heading south for the winter awaited a 2 PM opening of the bridge, 11/01/10
NCDOT photo of bridge platform, roadway, tender house and counterweights
Photo from City-Data.com
Bridge beginning to open after ramps were raised, photo by Gayle Plaia, 03/06/06
Click here to watch a 45-second video of boats passing through the bridge: http://s1009.photobucket.com/albums/af220/jookeefe/?action=view&current=100_1542.mp4.
This control panel had switches that controlled the two crossing gates and the two pairs of stop lights. The engine would not start until gates had dropped.
This stairway was used by bridge tenders to go down to the engine room.
Ben Hooper, from the NCDOT Brunswick County Bridge Maintenence Office, filled in for the bridge tender on the day I visited. He scanned the waterway for oncoming vessels, particularly commercial and government vessels for which the bridge had to open at any time.
Ben notified captains of sailboats that he would wait for all of them to reach the bridge before opening it.
This was the primary diesel engine or motor. The round coral pump on this end activated the hydraulic fluid that operated the winches.
This is a back-up engine available if the primary engine had problems. It included a generator to power auxiliary equipment such as saws, although that the generator was never used.
The winch that closed the bridge is on the left. The winch that controlled the counterweights or balances is in the center.
Cables from the three winches passed through these four pulleys.
The winch that closed the bridge
Pulleys from left and right winches. Each went to the corner of a barge in the water that was tied to a piling.
Hydraulic handles operated winches and pulleys
As mentioned earlier, winches pulled a pair of counterweights that operated on a fulcrum basis like a seesaw.. When the weights on each side of the ramp were up, the ramp was down. When the weights were down, the ramp was up. The bridge tender lowered the counterweights to raise the ramps to allow the bridge to swing clear of the roadway.
Photo courtesy of Marinas.com®. All Rights Reserved

Marinas.com granted permission to include this photo on this webpage. It increases appreciation of how vital the series of little swing bridges were for 50 years by providing passage across the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

The bridge opened on the hour for pleasure craft when vessels were waiting. It opened at all times for commercial and government vessels. Thus the bridge might have opened on the hour for a line of pleasure boats, closed, and then re-opened promptly for a fishing trawler.

An average of six times per month the tide was so low that the bridge could not be opened because of the risk of being mired in mud. In that case, boats waited through low tide until the water level was high enough for the bridge tender to open the bridge safely.

old bridge open for boats
old bridge open for boats
Bridge open for traffic on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Sunset Beach, NC, 05/10/10
old bridge open for boats
Bridge open for boat traffic, 06/04/10
school bus on old bridge
school bridge on old bridge
The foggy beginning of a new day for children living on Sunset Beach

Beginning in 1983, Sunset Beach property owners opposed construction of a high-rise bridge such as those approved for nearby Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach. Claims were that the environment would be damaged and the nature of the island itself would change. Opposition and lawsuits continued for a quarter of a century. The cost for construction of the new, high-rise bridge for Sunset Beach rose from an estimated $5.2 million to nearly $31 million. Adding in Department design, inspection and supervision during construction, and legal expenses, brought the overall cost to around $42,400,000.

During some of those years the North Carolina Department of Transportation spent nearly a half million dollars to maintain and operate the old bridge. Operators, i.e., bridge tenders, cost NCDOT approximately $125,000 per year. Besides personnel costs to operate the bridge, all parts of the pontoon bridge were kept in safe operating condition by the NCDOT. The timber roadway surface was replaced approximately every two years. In comparison to the high expense involved in maintaining the wooden bridge, in 2006 NCDOT spent under $3,800 to maintain the nearby high-rise bridge on Ocean Isle Beach. In FY 2009-2010, NCDOT spent $262,910.57 more on the Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge than it did on the Ocean Isle Beach Bridge.

Because the bridge opened for commercial and government vessels on demand, there were additional delays for vehicular traffic. In 2005 the Average Daily Traffic was 4,300 vehicles per day. By 2007 the Annual Average Daily Traffic had increased to approximately 7,000 vehicles per day. It continued to increase. Scores and sometimes hundreds of vehicles were delayed on both the island side and the mainland when the bridge opened. In the right-hand photo below, sailboats passed through the bridge. Vessels on the waterway took precedence because the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was constructed before the bridge.

old and new bridges
gate on old bridge

For nearly a half century, life at Sunset Beach revolved around the bridge schedule. Each meeting, tee-time and low-tide walk had to be planned to avoid an hourly bridge opening. Yet some persons, rushing from one activity to another, developed an appreciation of the pause those bridge delays provided.

trawlers after passing through bridge
Capt. Jarrad

Because of opposition to construction of a new bridge and the three years spent building the new bridge, for 28 years both vehicular traffic and vessels were held up daily, wasting fuel and interrupting schedules. Visitors were stranded on the island and mainland for many hours at a time when part of the bridge broke. As an example, in 2009, thousands of persons were affected by nine cable breaks.

boats waiting for bridge
men repairing bridge
Boats waiting for bridge to open
Sunset Beach Bridge broken on 10/12/04 with workmen repairing it. The red horn, protected by wood, juts out on the right side of the bridge tender house.
waiting for broken bridge
broken bridge
Persons waited on the island side (left) and the mainland side (right) while repairs were underway

Sometimes delays were extensive. On Monday, December 15, 2003, when the bridge was closing after a vessel passed through, a nearby barge became wedged between the center portion of the bridge and support pilings. The bridge was closed for 12 hours.

Photo by Jamie Moncrief courtesy of the Wilmington Star-News

On April 28, 2004, a 20-year-old man tried to drive across the bridge while it was open. His pickup truck landed upright in 17 feet of water. The driver and passenger swam ashore. Once again the bridge was closed for 12 hours until equipment arrived and removed the truck from the water.

boat passing through bridge
boat approaching bridge
Boats passing through the open bridge

The most serious issue related to the bridge was the safety of persons on the island. Reaching someone on the island during a medical crisis such as a seizure, heart attack or serious Portuguese Man of War attack could take a long time. Transporting the person off the island took additional time. Emergency crews had delays reaching persons in need on the island. The fire department's large ladder truck, weighing 72,000 pounds, was unable to cross the bridge because of weight restrictions. If the maximum load of the bridge were exceeded, one or more of the pontoons could have become submerged and sunk into the mud. Because beach fires spread rapidly, countless houses on the island could have burned if fire trucks had been unable to respond to a fire call.

On several occasions some folks who did not mind bridge delays traveled to Sunset Beach in mule-drawn covered wagons. One of the trips was described in Rural Heritage Magazine by Shannon Hoffman, as told to her by Ken Tyndall. When one man, Billy Stevenson, decided to walk across because he was afraid that the bridge might collapse from the wagons, a woman visiting from Georgia eagerly hopped in the wagon to take his place. During a pleasant ride on the beach at low tide, the mules were more concerned about the waves than they had been about crossing the bridge.

fishing at the bridge
The bridge tender house
A lone fisherman at dawn

In December 2007 Judge Louise Flanagan refused to grant an injunction requested by the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and the Brunswick Environmental Action Team to deny construction of the high-rise bridge. That allowed NCDOT to award the contract. Next, the opponents withdrew their final lawsuit. Undeniably, a new bridge was needed. Although it was always safe, the pontoon bridge had a sufficiency rating of four on a scale of one to 100.

the pontoon bridge
the pontoon bridge

The contract was awarded to English Construction Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia. On February 19, 2008, English Construction staff, along with NCDOT engineers, arrived on the site. Soon afterwards workmen began preliminary tasks such as tree clearing. Finally, after nearly three years of construction, the Mannon C. Gore Bridge to Sunset Beach opened on November 11, 2010.

the Sunset Beach pontoon bridge

A photo of the bridge with Red Buckeye growing in the foreground, taken prior to the beginning of construction of the new bridge in February 2008

Retiring the Bridge

The old pontoon bridge remained in operation for two more months. A bridge tender continued to open it hourly on weekdays when vessels were waiting. English Construction Company workers used the bridge to remove truckloads of debris from demolition of a work bridge in the waterway, a half-mile detour used by vehicles during bridge construction, and a portion of roadway leading from the island to the bridge itself.

The Bridge Opening for the Last Time, 01/07/11

On January 7, 2011, at 10:45 AM, the bridge opened for the last time. NCDOT employees, several bridge tenders, workers from English Construction Company and other people watched the final opening and listened to the sounding of the horn. Soon the bridge was disconnected from its moorings. Because the old bridge no longer connected the mainland to the island, officially it was decomissioned. Later in the day it was pushed west by barge under the new bridge to the edge of the waterway. It remained there until January 21, 2011, when it was placed on a site on land nearby. One ramp, removed from the bridge earlier, had already been moved to the new location. Portions of the 1984 bridge moved to the new location are 115 feet long. The entire swing bridge, including roadway on each side, was 508-feet long. In stark contrast, the new high-rise bridge is 2,563 feet long not including ramps and causeway.

Waiting on the Waterway for the move to land, 01/13/11

The old bridge tender house will become an interpretive center. A stretch of roadway 45 feet long with a 35-foot steel ramp on each end is adjacent to the tender house. On January 22, 2011, volunteers already were laying a floor in the engine room of the tender house. The bridge and tender house are located on Hwy. 179B diagonally across from the Sunset Beach Fire Station. The Old Bridge Preservation Society is working to restore the bridge and bridge tender house. The 1984 Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge now rests on the south side of Hwy. 179B diagonally across from the Sunset Beach Fire Department. Its address is 109 Shoreline Drive West, Sunset Beach, NC 28468.

Last Updated: 11/16/13