History Of the Sunshine Skyway

The other day I had an appointment in Bradenton and planned to take I-275 across the Sunshine Skyway. Good plan, but there was a slight impediment. Due to high winds the Skyway was closed, so I had to take the long way around and go through Tampa to US-41, which turned the half-hour trip into two-hour sojourn. Fortunately, by the time I headed home the Skyway was once again open. I marveled at the fortitude of our St. Petersburg residents who had to make this trip in the early days of our communities.

I wondered when the Skyway was built, so a little online research was in order. I learned that before the first bridge, there was a ferry service for cars between Bradenton and St. Petersburg that shortened the trip from more than 50 miles to 22 miles, and took between 40 and 60 minutes. The Bee Line Ferry began service in 1926 and ran from Piney Point in Northern Manatee County to 4th St. S. in St. Petersburg (Pinellas Point). While it shortened the trip, at times the ferry was so busy that waiting times were three hours or more.

The four ferries of the Bee Line continued to make the crossing until the original Sunshine Skyway bridge, which cost $21 million to build, opened on September 6, 1954. This original twolane steel cantilever bridge, built by the Virginia Bridge Company, served the area on its own until the late 1960s when, due to changing standards for the interstate highway system, four lanes were required. In 1969 a second, parallel bridge was built to the just to the west, making a total of four lanes, two in each direction. Opening of the newer span was delayed until 1971 due to necessary repairs. The second bridge was used for all southbound traffic, while the original span was converted to carry northbound traffic.

Photo of sign on the northern approach that read, “The W. E. ‘Bill’ Dean Bridge". Circa 1979. Submitted by Kai Warren. Photo taken by Barbara Andersen Lochridge.
Photo of sign on the northern approach read, “The W. E. ‘Bill’ Dean Bridge”. Circa 1979. Submitted by Kai Warren. Photo taken by Barbara Andersen Lochridge.

The first tragedy associated with the Sunshine Skyway bridge occurred on January 28, 1980, when the US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, which had recently completed a major overhaul in Tampa, collided with a tanker named the Capricorn as it made way under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the extensive damage caused when the tanker’s anchor ripped into the Blackthorn’s hull, the ship capsized and 23 of the Blackthorn’s 50-member crew perished. A commemorative plaque can still be found on the bridge’s approach.

Of course, the bridge’s most famous disaster took place on May 9, 1980, when a freighter, the MV Summit Venture, collided with a support column pier during a severe storm. As a result, 1,200 feet of the southbound Sunshine Skyway bridge collapsed into the water, along with six vehicles and a Greyhound bus, killing 35 people. Of those who plunged into the Bay, only one man, Wesley MacIntire, survived. His falling truck hit the Summit Venture’s deck before sliding into the water. He was able to get out of the truck and swim to the Summit Venture, where he was rescued.

Construction of the current Sunshine Skyway began in 1982, and the completed bridge was dedicated on February 7, 1987. The new, six-lane bridge cost $244 million to build, and was opened to traffic on April 20, 1987. At a length of 29,040 feet and a height of 190 feet above the water, it is the world’s largest cable-stayed concrete bridge, and it has won dozens of engineering and design awards.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge 2015. Photo credit: City of St Petersburg.
Sunshine Skyway Bridge 2015. Photo credit: City of St Petersburg.

Because protecting the new bridge from collisions was paramount, large concrete islands, called dolphins, were built around each of the bridge’s six piers, and were designed to withstand the impact of an 87,000-ton ship.

The bright yellow paint job on the cables is said to reflect the Skyway’s home in the Sunshine State. The placement of the cables between the two roadways, rather than on the outside, offers drivers and passengers an unobstructed view of the water as they cross the bridge.

The remains of the old bridge were demolished in 1993, and it was decided to leave the north and south over-water approaches intact. Today these are known as the Skyway Fishing Pier Park, and scores of fishermen can be seen daily with their lines in the water.

Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier
Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier. Photo Credit: City of St Petersburg.

In 2005, an act of the Florida Legislature officially named the current bridge the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, after the former Governor of Florida and then U.S. Senator who presided over its design and most of its construction.

The Sunshine Skyway, surely one of the most beautiful bridges in existence, has garnered more than its share of praise. The graceful span and shining yellow cables are well lit at night, and can be seen for miles day or night. It can best be viewed from the East Beach area of Fort Desoto Park. Due to its beauty the span has been the scene of several auto commercials. It is also worth noting that a special on the Travel Channel rated our Sunshine Skyway third best of their Top Ten Bridges.

The next time you drive across the Sunshine Skyway, perhaps you will recall some of its interesting history. Or maybe you will just enjoy the gorgeous view. Either way, the bridge is yet another reason St. Petersburg is such a unique place to live or visit.

  1. Ian Nerney 7 months ago

    Great article! As a resident of Manatee County who works in St. Petersburg, I have had to deal with bridge closure situations on many occasions. It really makes your appreciate the structure, and the benefit it provides to the Tampa Bay community.

    I recently started a small project to keep track of bridge closures, and create a closure prediction model to help Tampa regional commuters. Check it out at https://www.skywaybridgestatus.com. Hopefully you can use it next time you need to take a trip to Bradenton on a rainy day. 🙂

    • mm
      Green Bench Monthly 6 months ago

      That is useful. Thanks, Ian!

  2. Kai Warren 6 months ago

    Great article! I have one fun little bit of trivia to add: the first bridge was named after William E. Dean. There was a sign on the northern approach that read, “The W. E. ‘Bill’ Dean Bridge”. I always thought that was funny because it looked like it was saying “The We Building Bridge.”

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