The Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Opened to traffic in 1987, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a cable stayed bridge with a vertical clearance of 191 feet above the 1,200-foot wide shipping channel over Tampa Bay. The sight is beautiful and majestic as you cross depending on the time of day. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a popular tourist attraction as well as a favorite among the Tampa Bay region's residents and visitors year in and year out. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge carries not only Interstate 275, but it multiplexes with US 19 from Exit 17 (54 Av S) in St. Petersburg to Exit 5 (US 19 South) in Manatee County.

Toll to drive across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is $1.50 for passenger cars, and can be paid with cash or SunPass (an electronic toll collection device that makes driving on toll roads and bridges in Florida more convenient) for the lower toll rate of $1.07.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge has a colorful history from its heydays as a single two-lane cantilever span in 1954 to the present four-lane cable-stayed span. In triumph and tragedy, the present cable-stayed and the former cantilever spans (including the main channel piers of the former cantilever spans) of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge are an icon of the Tampa Bay region.

The beginning of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge: The 1954 cantilever span

I wrote a term paper about the Sunshine Skyway Bridge back when I was in high school during my senior year. The need for a lower Tampa Bay crossing can be traced back to the 1920’s when a suspension bridge was proposed. However, it met opposition from shipping interests in Tampa, who wanted a tunnel instead. All ideas of a bridge or tunnel had to be put on the shelf when World War II broke out.

After World War II the idea of a bridge was resurfaced. The need for a bridge was justified due to the traffic using the Bee Line Ferry as it was the only way to get to Bradenton and points south without having to make the long drive through Tampa. After all, Interstate 275 wasn't even around yet! The objective was to extend the Gulf Coast Highway - known today as US 19 - south past St. Petersburg and over Tampa Bay to Palmetto in Manatee County where it would link up with US 41 connecting Tampa with Miami, also known as the Tamiami Trail.

The makeup of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be a system of bridges and dredged causeways crossing lower Tampa Bay. Each structure would be identified by a letter, with Structure A being the drawbridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway and Structures B, D and E being small fixed span bridges. The main span would be Structure C, which would carry the majestic cantilever through truss section as it crosses the shipping channel in Tampa Bay.

Construction began on the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1950 and it was completed in 1954 with a gala grand opening ceremony on Labor Day weekend of that year. The original bridge was a cantilever through-truss with a vertical clearance of 150 feet and a shipping channel clearance of 864 feet, which was adequate for ships of that era. One can admire the architecture of the major support piers on either side of the shipping channel as well as the three other support piers on the deck truss section of the bridge. The only thing that gives anyone the jitters is the steel grid deck as one crosses the shipping channel and the humming sound it makes as one drives across.

For those that don't know the experience of driving across a steel grid deck bridge, it's basically the same as if you were driving across a drawbridge, only it's longer. Speaking of drawbridges, the first bridge as you leave St. Petersburg going south was a drawbridge.

Within a few months of the Sunshine Skyway's opening of the original 1954 span it became popular with residents and visitors alike. Gone were the days of having to make the roundabout drive through Tampa or having to take the Bee Line Ferry in order to reach Bradenton, Sarasota and points beyond.

The 1971 cantilever span: From blueprint to disaster

Within a few years traffic increased so much that it justified a second span to accommodate southbound traffic. Plans were prepared for construction of a second cantilever span utilizing the same plans as the Sunshine Skyway's 1954 counterpart.

Construction on the southbound span began in 1967 but it was not finished until 1971 due to settling of a major pier - Pier 1-S - requiring major repair. It was believed that the pilings driven into the bay bottom to support the pier were of concrete as opposed to steel and were not driven deep enough to the limestone below. Repairs to the south channel pier were accomplished by driving steel pilings to the limestone and bracing the support pier to make the bridge safe for travel.

Pier 1-S showing the repairs that were made: The bottom where the steel pilings were driven to limestone and the top encased in concrete to help brace the pier itself.

Except for Pier 1-S, the major south channel pier, all the other piers including the north main channel pier, Pier 1-N, were designed and built identical to their 1954 counterparts. In 1981 I took a boat excursion aboard the Steven Thomas from downtown St. Petersburg to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and I managed to get pictures of the old Sunshine Skyway's channel piers including that of Pier 1-S together with its 1954 counterpart to show you the difference between the original channel piers and the repaired channel pier.

Both the original 1954 Pier 1-S and the repaired 1971 Pier 1-S. The original 1954 Pier 1-S (left) was constructed with pilings driven to the limestone bottom, while the 1971 Pier 1-S (right) originally had the same design as the pier to the left when it was originally built but concrete pilings were driven into the bay bottom, not hitting more sturdier limestone. Pier 1-N - the channel pier on the southbound span across from Pier 1-S - was constructed similar to the 1954 Pier 1-S to the left.

The 1971 span when opened carried southbound traffic and it meant the difference; the 1954 span was converted to accommodate northbound traffic. The 1971 southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge - including its northern main channel pier which was similar to their 1954 counterparts, known as Pier 1-N and its repaired southern channel pier which stood out from the rest, known as Pier 1-S, as well as the high level cantilever through truss span - served its purpose for nine years until a stormy May morning in 1980 which will be forever etched in the history of the Tampa Bay region.

On 9 May 1980 at 7:38 AM the Summit Venture, under the command of harbor pilot John Lerro, struck the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a blinding rainstorm, toppling much of the southbound span into Tampa Bay and costing 35 lives including several aboard a Greyhound bus destined for Miami. There were two survivors, Wesley McIntire who went off the damaged end and swam to safety (the crew of the Summit Venture threw a lifeline and pulled Wesley McIntire aboard) and Richard Hornbuckle who stopped his Buick Skylark a mere 14 inches from plummeting into the churning waters of Tampa Bay 150 feet below.

How did the Sunshine Skyway southbound span fall upon impact?

After the Skyway disaster there was a choice that had to be made: Repair or replace? One side wanted the bridge repaired while the other side wanted a whole new bridge. After all, two way traffic was once again being maintained on the 1954 span but something had to be done. And quickly. In the end, Florida Governor Bob Graham made the decision to replace the Sunshine Skyway Bridge with a cable-stayed bridge, modeled after a bridge in France.

The 1987 cable-stayed span: A much better improvement than its cantilever counterparts

As Interstate 275 was being built through St. Petersburg, the need for a Sunshine Skyway Bridge that is up to interstate standards was more obvious. Shortly after the May 1980 Sunshine Skyway disaster there was talk briefly of not including Interstate 275 with the Sunshine Skyway, but the need was greatly justified, especially with the construction of the replacement cable-stayed bridge. Both the 1954 and 1971 cantilever spans did not meet interstate standards.

Work begun on replacing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1982 and it was completed with a lot of fanfare with a dedication ceremony in February 1987 and the grand opening in April 1987. Two years later in 1989 the roads leading up to the Sunshine Skyway were brought up to interstate standards, including the construction of overpasses at the north and south rest areas to better facilitate access. In 1994 the drawbridges were replaced by high level fixed span bridges similar to the Howard Frankland Bridge thereby correcting a potential traffic bottleneck when the drawbridges were up.

The new Sunshine Skyway basically followed the footprint of the old Sunshine Skyway, the only exception being that of the high level cable stayed span which was built to the east of the twin cantilever spans. This was done basically as a safety factor for ships: It would give ships coming into Port Tampa Bay time to make the required northeast turn at Buoys 1A and 2A. With the old twin cantilever spans, the turn was way too close, and the Summit Venture missed that critical turn on that stormy morning of 9 May 1980 which, among other things, contributed to a series of events that would result in the old Sunshine Skyway's southbound span being hit.

The old Sunshine Skyway Bridge was demolished in 1991 and the resulting ends were converted into fishing piers. Today all that remains of the 1954 and 1971 bridges are that of the fishing piers that were created. Once the new span was opened the 1954 and 1971 spans including their main channel support piers were a navigation hazard necessitating their demolition.

In November 2005 the Sunshine Skyway was renamed the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge in honor of the former Florida governor who I believe made the right decision to replace the 1954 and 1971 cantilever spans with a new cable stayed bridge, modeled after a similar bridge in France. After the old southbound (1971) span of the Sunshine Skyway collapsed on 9 May 1980 Pinellas and Manatee interests wanted the old cantilever bridge rebuilt as soon as possible while Hillsborough interests wanted a tunnel; the decision to replace the old bridges with the new cable stayed bridge pleased both interests.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Northbound

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Southbound

Perspective of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Covers every other aspect of the Sunshine Skyway except the 9 May 1980 and Blackthorn memorials - each memorial has their own section as shown below.

The Sunshine Skyway Tragedy Memorial at the
Sunshine Skyway North Rest Area

On 9 May 2015 - 35 years to the day the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway was hit by the Summit Venture causing 1,260 feet of the Sunshine Skyway's southbound span to fall into Tampa Bay taking with it 35 lives - a long awaited and well deserved memorial was erected and dedicated to the 35 people that lost their lives that fateful morning. It is located in the Sunshine Skyway North Rest Area southwest of the rest area building.

A PDF list of the 35 people that perished in the Sunshine Skyway tragedy can be found here.

The US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn Memorial
at the Sunshine Skyway North Rest Area

On the night of 28 January 1980, the US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn collided with with the tanker Capricorn in Tampa Bay west of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Shortly after the collision, the Blackthorn capsized, and 23 of the Blackthorn crew perished. A memorial was erected in honor of the 23 crew members that perished that fateful night; the crash site is located in Tampa Bay about a mile and a half due south of the memorial. The Blackthorn Memorial is located in the Sunshine Skyway North Rest Area west of the rest area building with walkway access and the memorial features the anchor that was retrieved from the Blackthorn as well as the memorial itself.


The New Sunshine Skyway Bridge Dedication
Ceremony in February 1987

At the Sunshine Skyway's dedication ceremony in February 1987 (the bridge didn't open until April 1987) I took a few pictures with my trusty 35 mm camera; after all, digital cameras were not being made yet! (Or would not be for another 15 years, put it that way). Despite a dreary Saturday in February 1987, thousands of people - me included - came out to walk to the top of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the only time pedestrians were allowed. Speeches by dignitaries including former Florida Governor Bob Graham (of which the Sunshine Skyway was named after in 2005) were made and the event was covered by the Tampa Bay region's news media outlets including WTOG-TV Channel 44, which had their Eyewitness News newscast at the time (unfortunately, Bay News 9 wasn't around yet which would not come on the air for another 10 years).