By Tess Malijenovsky
Photos by Bob Sofaly
The new bridge along U.S. 21 (Sea Island Parkway) over the Harbor River in Beaufort County officially opened Monday, April 25, two months ahead of schedule. It is the only way the communities of Harbor, Hunting and Fripp Islands can access the mainland of Beaufort County, making the replacement of the previous 82-year-old swing drawbridge foremost a matter of safety, according to state officials.
The new bridge is also the S.C. Department of Transportation’s most expensive bridge construction project to date for aging infrastructure that isn’t eligible for State Infrastructure Bank funding, coming in at $77 million, according to Senator George “Chip” Campsen (R-District 43 – Beaufort, Charleston and Colleton Counties).
Rising 65 feet above the Harbor River and spanning close to three-quarters of a mile long, the new bridge will provide unimpeded passage for shrimp boats and sailboats that no longer have to wait for the old Harbor Island bridge to swing open. That goes for the estimated 6,200 motorists that cross the bridge every day, too. More importantly, the new bridge provides a faster, safer way to evacuate the barrier island communities in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm.
“The age and the working mechanisms of the bridge are just worn out,” said S.C. Rep. Shannon Erickson. “It got to the point where every time we would open the bridge, we would have to have an engineer on site to make sure that we could get it closed and to keep it operational.”
The bridge was known to get stuck open at least a couple times a year and as recently as a couple weeks ago, holding up traffic for several hours. However, the increasingly unreliable opening mechanism of the drawbridge wasn’t the only safety concern, according to Rep. Erickson. Severe storm events threatened to wash out either side of the old bridge due to the sandy soil composition beneath the land ramps and their low elevation, which would make it dangerous or potentially impossible to cross.
“The safety of our citizens is paramount when we look at our bridges,” said Rep. Erickson. “It certainly will assist getting folks off of those barriers islands and evacuated in a much faster, safer manner.”
Crossing the old swing drawbridge, construction of which began originally in the late 1930s before WWII, has been a cherished memory for those who grew up visiting and making a living on the barrier islands for the past eight decades. One such person was Davis Dempsey of Dempsey Farms, 82, the same age as the bridge, who shared his memories of the bridge at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday.
Others recalled the way the bridge would “sing” while driving across its steel.
More than 70 people were in attendance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate both bridges and to be the first to “officially” drive over the new bridge.
“Standing on that bridge today, I was just reminded of how amazing our salt marsh and estuary and river systems are – you get one of the most beautiful bird’s eye views from that bridge that I’ve ever seen,” Rep. Erickson said.
Soon the old swing bridge will have a new home and a new purpose. The steel superstructure will be welded to a barge and then sunk 52 miles offshore between Charleston Harbor and St. Helena at the site of the South Carolina Memorial Reef, the only managed deep-water artificial reef on the East Coast.
The old bridge will create critical habitat and the basis of the food chain for an ecosystem of new marine life, including species of concern, like grouper and snapper, and prized billfish coveted by sport anglers. Demolition starts this week.
Tess Malijenovsky is a journalist, columnist and photographer based in Beaufort, S.C. You can see more of her work at tessmalijenovsky.com or contact her at email@example.com.