Locals remember the old Sunset Beach bridge with mixed emotions; fondness for the history and romance of the structure, and relief that they no longer have to time their trips across the waterway to coincide with the bridge’s opening and closing. For over fifty years, residents and visitors to the island were bound by a strict timetable if they wanted to cross over to the mainland and back, because every hour, on the hour, the only way on and off the island was blocked by passing boats.
In November 2010, the Mannon C. Gore Bridge, named for Sunset Beach developer and the designer of the old pontoon bridge, opened to travelers, soaring high enough above the Intracoastal Waterway to allow even the tallest sailing masts to pass beneath it. At that time, the old Sunset Beach bridge was retired to the annals of history and saved from the scrapheap by some dedicated volunteers.
Sunset Beach, North Carolina is about 32 miles north of downtown Myrtle Beach and makes a great day trip. Originally called Bald Beach, perhaps as a bookend name to Bald Head Island some 30 miles or so to the east, the island of Sunset Beach was purchased and renamed in 1955 by Mannon Gore for about $60,000. His intention was to sell beach property, but at that time, the only way to get onto the island was by boat. Gore came up with the idea of a floating swing bridge that used cables to move it out and in for marine traffic to pass by.
Pontoons allowed the 130-foot long, one-lane bridge to float like a ferry and to rise and fall with the tides. This meant that at high tide, the bridge was higher than the adjacent roadway and at low tide, it was lower, sometimes making it difficult to cross for long, low-slung vehicles such as limousines or long trailers.
Gore opened his pontoon bridge in 1958 and Sunset Beach became connected to the mainland for the first time. Closings were scheduled hourly on the hour, so residents generally timed their trips accordingly. Boats wanting to pass through lined up waiting for the blast of the siren, the signal that the bridge was about to close to land traffic and open up to marine traffic. For the next 52 years, the old Sunset Beach bridge served beach goers and residents until time won out and the bridge, the last of its kind on the east coast, found its way into history.
In the summer of 2010, three Sunset Beach women, Karen Dombrowski, Chris Wilson, and Ann Bokleman got together and decided the old Sunset Beach bridge should be preserved as a part of the town’s history. They formed the Old Bridge Preservation Society and through many months of effort, some skill, some luck, and a lot of dedication, they managed to get the pontoon bridge and tender house moved to a piece of land donated by Ronnie and Clarice Holden, owners of nearby Twin Lakes Restaurant and Island Breeze women’s wear, just yards from where it served the town for so long.
Today, the old bridge rests in the shadow of the new one, beneath stately live oaks and close to its old starting point that is now a public boat ramp. The bridge and tender house have become a museum and a gathering place for events such as the Sunset Beach Strawberry and Wine Festival that takes place each April, and the annual Fourth of July at the Old Bridge.
You can walk across the bumpy old bridge and climb the stairs to the bridge tender’s office. You can sit at the tender’s desk, sound the siren, and watch a video of the last bridge tender describing his life on the bridge. There are various exhibits that include artifacts from the pontoon bridge, locally found items from the Civil War, and the story of the blockade runner Vesta, a steamer that ran aground off Sunset Beach in 1864.
Make a purchase in the Bridge Tender’s Shop, which is housed in the former engine room, and you’ll not only pick up a unique gift, you’ll be helping the all-volunteer group preserve a piece of history.
Book lovers get an added treat. In front of the museum is a replica of the Bridge Tender’s House that serves as a Little Free Library where you can take a book or leave a book.
There are picnic tables out front if you want to bring a snack or just sit a while and enjoy the breeze in the live oaks.
The museum and Bridge Tender Gift Shop are open year-round. Check times before going. Admission is free, but donations are happily accepted.
Fall & Winter Hours: Labor Day to Memorial Day
Wednesday 1:00 PM to 4:00 pm
Saturday 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM
Summer Hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day
Tuesday and Thursday 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Wednesday 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM
For videos and photos of how the bridge was moved and more information about the museum, visit Old Bridge Preservation Society.
For some out of this world fun, you might also like visiting the Ingram Planetarium while you're in the area.
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