Historic City Memories: The Bridge of Lions III

The Bridge of Lions

Part three of a three part series

Answers to Questions Not Asked

By Geoff Dobson

Construction of the original Bridge of Lions took only two years from start, planning, and finish and cost only $1,000,000. Construction of the new replacement Bridge of Lions has taken over thirty-years from the time the Department of Transportation realized there was a problem with the bridge and an increase in the budget from $12,000,000 to $83,000,000.

Why? Others, as they have sat in a line of cars on Avenida Menendez or on Anastasia Blvd watching pedestrians and dogs pass them by, have asked why not a four-lane bridge? Some, such as Eddie Mussallem, himself a historic figure, have contended that the bridge is not historic. After all, it is younger than he is.

The short answer is that the Bridge of Lions was caught up in the confluence of four events, the enactment by Congress of Section 4 (f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the collapse of a bridge in Tarpon Springs in 1968, a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 1971, and the designation of the Bridge in 1982 to the National Register.

The designer of the original Bridge of Lions, J. E. Greiner, had estimated that the life of a bridge with proper maintenance is about fifty years. Indeed even today, the State Department of Transportation estimates the life expectancy of a new bridge at 50 years.

On December 17, 1968, the Anclote River Bridge at Tarpon Springs suddenly and without warning collapsed, plunging two cars into the chilly water below. Five were injured and 1 person was killed. At first the State Road Department speculated that a sinkhole had opened beneath the bridge. The legislature ordered an investigation. In July, 1969, that investigation and a second investigation by the State Road Department revealed that there had been bottom scouring which exposed the pilings to wearing down. The Department began investigation of the remaining bridges within the state. Bottom scouring similar to that found at the Anclote River Bridge was found at the Bridge of Lions. In 1970, some 2.2 million dollars worth of repairs were made to the bridge. More repairs were made in 1972. In 1978 and 1979 with the bridge having exceeded its original life expectancy, more repairs were necessary with the bridge being closed at times to both water and highway traffic.

The Department of Transportation presented to the City Commission a plan for a new replacement bridge. The proposed new bridge would be four-lane and twelve-feet higher. The increased height would permit many of the shrimp boats to fit underneath without the necessity of opening the draw span. Notwithstanding that the Department was adverse to bascule bridges, the Department indicated that it was sensitive to the appearance of the proposed new bridge. A conventional bridge would cost $8,000,000. The new bridge would cost $12,000,000, four million just for appearance with arches, lighting and towers that would give the same architectural appearance as the Bridge of Lions. It was explained that the existing Bridge of Lions did not meet current standards for the width of the driving lanes and that the 75 foot bridge wide opening was less than Coast Guard approved 125 feet standard for bridge openings. In actuality on some occasions, 72 foot-wide barges had been pushed through the opening leaving little margin for error. The writer can recall one time when one of the diners at Capt. Jack’s “round table” dashed out of the building to watch what he expected to be the destruction of the bridge by a barge passing through the opening.

The Department of Transportation is somewhat adverse to bascule spans. They provide in addition to the expense of bridge tenders on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, additional maintenance for the machinery, a constant source of complaints by motorists who are stopped for boat traffic. Homeowners near the bridges complain about the bells and warning horns being sounded every time the bridge opens. There is liability as a result of human error in the operation of the bridge. Motorists have claimed that a bridge has been raised in front of them without warning. In one instance two old ladies in West Palm Beach, on the way to play canasta, leaped the opening span. In another instance, a senior citizen in Pinellas County was caught precariously balanced in a Ford Thunderbird between the two uplifted leaves.

Boat operators have little love for the bascule spans either. In one instance, a bridge tender was badly beaten by an irate boat owner when the bridge failed to open. Another time, the bridge tender failed to observe a sail boat passing beneath the upraised leaves of the span and lowered the bridge right on top of the mast, driving the mast through the bottom of the hull. Whereupon, the sail boat made with great alacrity to the shore, where the boat sank. Another time, while a bridge was lowering, the operator of a vessel attempted to beat the downward movement of the leaves. As the vessel drifted again the leaves, the bridge tender reversed the leaves which by then had caught the top of the boat’s cabin. The top of the cabin was ripped out by the roots.

Not all was the fault of the bridge tenders. Vehicles would attempt to “beat the bridge” in much the same manner as a driver attempting to beat a train. The writer is reminded of the time in south Florida when the Department of Transportation received repeated complaints of bridge tenders on one particular bridge lowering the gates before oncoming cars, requiring the drivers to make hard stops. One of the maintenance engineers confronted the bridge tender and proceeded to show him the proper procedures for raising the bridge. Soon an oncoming vessel sounded its horn, signaling for the bridge the open. The engineer explained that under Coast Guard Regulations it was required for the bridge to respond within 30 seconds with a long and a short blast of the bridge’s horn that the bridge was going to open. If it could not be opened, the response was to be four short blasts. The signal that the bridge was going to open was dutiful given.

It was then explained that the bells and lights of the bridge on the roadway were then to be activated. The bells went “ding, ding, ding,” the lights flashed. The cars kept coming. None were stopping. All were attempting to beat the opening of the bridge. The boat kept coming. The engineer then asked the bridge tender how he handled the problem. The bridge tender activated the gates. The sound of automobiles screeching to a halt was heard from outside the bridge tender’s house.

In 1966, Congress enacted Section 4 (f). In short, the section provided that federal money could not be used to fund projects on sites of “national, state or local significance (as determined by federal, state, or local officials having jurisdiction over the…site).” It protected properties listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and in some cases, properties identified by state and local governments as historically significant unless 1) there was “no feasible and prudent alternative” to using the site, and 2) the project included all possible planning to minimize harm to the site.

In 1971, the full implications of Section 4 (f) were determined by the United States Supreme Court in a case called Volpe v. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. That decision made it clear that the decision of the Federal Secretary of Transportation to allow federal funds to be used in a project affecting significant sites was to be made personally by the secretary; his determination was subject to review by the courts; the judicial review was to be made of the full administrative record considered by the secretary; and that administrative officials making the recommendations within the record were subject to examination in court. On November 19, 1982, the Bridge of Lions was placed on the National Register. The battle for a four-lane bridge or a bridge with a wider opening was over. As the Jacksonville Chapter of the American Institute o Architects pointed out in a letter to the Department, “widening the horizontal clearance span to 151 feet should be reclassified as a Remodeling versus Rehabilitation Option, as it does not meet the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Structures and would cause the Bridge of Lions to lose its National Register designation.”

In short, the Department was required to consider all feasible alternatives. If money is no object, anything other than a new bridge is feasible.

It mattered not that resolutions were passed by the two affected municipalities in favor of a new bridge or that others such as former mayor Eddie Mussallem believed that the bridge was not historic. Mayor Mussallem commented that he was “older than the bridge and I’m not historic.”

Next Week: Alternatives considered by the DOT.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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