The 1917 “Rickety Bridge”
by Donna Malloy
Seminole Bridge photo courtesy of Mike Sanders/Text by Donna Malloy
The invention of steel was to our skyline as the railroad was to the development of Florida. And in Pinellas County, the growth in our area was attributed to our pleasant climate as well as the opening of the prestigious Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair in 1895.
In his Clearwater-A Pictorial History, local historian Michael L. Sanders noted: …“the Belleview Biltmore Hotel did more to promote the area as a tourist resort and elevate the class of visitors than any other single structure.
Additionally, the hotel had one of the first golf courses in the State. Wealthy industrialists, steel magnates, socialites and railroad executives were brought into the Belleview grounds via private railroad tracks which ran off the main north-south artery.” The rich travelled in their individually owned railcars which they would park on the hotel grounds during their stay at the hotel.
In America, this was a time of tremendous growth and productive inventions. During the first part of the 20th Century, electricity, telephones and the automobile descended upon Pinellas County.
In the Pinellas County Historical Background, the Pinellas Planning Council wrote in 1986: “The most significant event of the first decade of the twentieth century in Pinellas was the coming of the automobile. Few people could have predicted the impact of this machine on the peninsula, or the vast expenses to which local government would be subjected by it.”
In 1916, uninhabited Clearwater Beach was known only to fisherman and day boaters. But that was soon to change. “In Clearwater, a $10,000 bond issue to build a wooden bridge to Clearwater Beach was approved in an election held in 1916. It is interesting to note that the significance of the election was augmented by the fact that Clearwater was one of the first cities to extend women suffrage, and a number of women in town cast their fist votes” continued Sanders.
Completed in 1917, the Seminole Bridge now linked the mainland to Clearwater Beach and for the first time the automobile to the sand. The bridge commenced at Seminole Street in Clearwater and terminated at the brick road in front of the Palm Pavillion on Clearwater Beach. The turnstile bridge allowed boats to pass through when opened by the bridge tender. The bridge tender, Dan Stoutamire, lived a peaceful life in the two-story structure that was built at the halfway point on the bridge.
Because the bridge was narrow, it had “pull-offs” to allow passage of on- coming cars. Made of wood, day by day the planks relentlessly baked in the hot Florida sun. Eventually, the planks began to curl at each end, popping the embedded nails as they dislocated from the frame. As Model T’s drove up and down the bridge, the “clippitty-cloppity” sound of hard rubber tires against unstable dry wood gave the bridge its nickname: “the Rickety Bridge.”
Mother Nature continued to play havoc on the Rickety Bridge. In 1921, a major hurricane hit Pinellas County and caused considerable damage to the four- year-old bridge. The hurricane, then unnamed, also caused the creation of Hurricane Pass between Caladesi and Honeymoon Island.
As a result, work on a new causeway bridge began in 1926 and on November 11, 1927, Veteran’s Day, the million-dollar Memorial Causeway Bridge opened. At the dedication ceremony, American Legion Post 7 donated sculpture E.M. Viquesney’s bronze statue entitled: “Spirit of the American Navy” in honor and memory of 38 local service men that died in World War I.
True to form and function, the bridge of 1926 eventually became obsolete and the engineering firm of HRD was hired to design a new causeway bridge. A total of 2,540 ft. long, the design of the modern bridge would include a 74 ft. vertical clearance over the intracoastal. No longer would a bridge tender be needed to stay alert for boaters and open the bridge when signaled.
“This 111.6-foot wide bridge has a 20-foot wide center median and carries two lanes of traffic in each direction with a sidewalk on each side” states HDR Engineering’s website. In November of 2005, the third Memorial Causeway Bridge opened at an “estimated cost of $45 million.” Serendipity placed me in the first line of passenger cars to formally cross over the new bridge when they opened the two west lanes to Clearwater Beach.
On November 10th of the following year, the “Spirit of the American Navy” statue was restored and reinstalled. Considered Viquesney’s greatest work, it is reported there are seven other sailor statues located in cities across America.
Today, the only physical proof that the original 1917 Seminole Bridge ever existed is a part of the turnstile, located approximately “50’ out” from the filled-in parking lot of the Seminole Boat Ramp in Clearwater, stated Sanders.
“If you look out westerly from the boat ramp, you may see the remnant of the old turnstile at extreme low tide.”
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