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The Sunset Beach, NC, Pontoon Bridge
Jo O'Keefe Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved
the old Sunset Beach Bridge

Until January 7, 2011, Sunset Beach had the last pontoon bridge crossing the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the natural barrier island of Sunset Beach. The only other pontoon bridge discernible on the east coast crosses Sunset Lake in Brookfield, Vermont. The North Carolina Department of Transportation first constructed a bridge to Sunset Beach in 1961. It was comprised of a bulkhead barge with a bridge tender's house and ramps.

The 1961 bridge replaced a cable swing bridge built in 1958 by Mannon C. Gore. Development of the island began after Gore purchased the island in 1955 from the Brooks Family and the International Paper Company. The Town of Sunset Beach was incorporated through an Act of the North Carolina General Assembly on March 26, 1963.

The center floating portion of the 1961 bridge was a timber creosote barge. Approximately every two years men took the barge out of the water, closing the bridge to vehicular traffic for about two to three weeks at a time, to make repairs. The bridge was "dry-docked" for repairs in at least 1964, 1967, 1969, and 1971.

In 1984 the center, floating, portion of the bridge was replaced. Eight metal barges were purchased from a Chester, South Carolina, company by the name of Shugart Manufacturing, hence giving them the name "Shugart Barges." They are pinned together, two on each end and four grouped together in the center. The bridge was built on top of them at the NCDOT Bridge Maintenance yard in Belville near Wilmington because it had dock and harbor facilities on the Brunswick River. After construction, the bridge was brought to Sunset Beach on the Brunswick River, next the Cape Fear River and finally via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The barges support a 115-foot movable span that includes 35-foot ramps at each end that fluctuate with the tides. The bridge is opened and closed with motors, pulleys, cables and other mechanical parts. The metal barges were in place for 26. Exposure to salt water resulted in extensive corrosion.

Reportedly after the 1984 bridge was in place, the 1961 bridge was sunk offshore to become an artificial reef.

The 508-foot long swing bridge with the mainland entrance and exit from the new bridge far in the back. At 2,563 feet, the new bridge is five times as long.
Winches pull a pair of counterweights, operating on a fulcrum basis, to help raise the ramps to clear the roadbed when the bridge opens. The counterweights in the left photo are in their high position, releasing stress on the cables attached to the ramps to allow them to be level with the roadbed. The counterweights in the right photo are lower, pulling on the cables attached to the ramps and lifting them above the roadbed, enabling the bridge to swing free.
Bridge opening
the notorious cable
A pair of cables operated by winches moves the bridge. The cable above pulls the bridge open to clear a lane for vessels.
The cable in these photos will be used to pull the bridge back into position. In these images the bridge has just reached its open position. The bridge tender is releasing the cable to allow it to sink to the bottom of the waterway while vessels pass.
Here is a video of boats passing through the bridge: http://s1009.photobucket.com/albums/af220/jookeefe/?action=view&current=100_1542.mp4. It is 45 seconds long.
The pontoon bridge was protected from vessel damage through a fender system composed of pier-like extensions and cluster pilings. A pair of extensions on the island side and one on the northwest corner toward the Like Oak trees, combined with the bridge itself, defined the lane for vessels. Cluster pilings bounced boats back on course before they could strike the bridge itself.
This control panel had switches that controlled the two crossing gates and the two pairs of stop lights. The engine would not start unless gates had dropped.
This stairway was used by bridge tenders to go down to the engine room.
Ben Hooper, from the NCDOT Brunswick County Bridge Maintenence Office, filled in for the bridge tender on the day I visited. He scanned the waterway for oncoming vessels, particularly commercial and government vessels for which the bridge had to open at any time.
Ben notified captains of sailboats that he would wait for all of them to reach the bridge before opening it.
This is the primary diesel engine or motor. The round coral pump on this end activates the hydraulic fluid that operates the winches.
This is a back-up engine available if the primary engine had problems. It included a generator to power auxiliary equipment such as saws, although that the generator was never used.
The winch that closed the bridge is on the left. The winch that controlled the counterweights or balances is in the center.
Cables from the three winches passed through these four pulleys.
The winch that closed the bridge
Pulleys from left and right winches. Each went to the corner of a barge in the water that was tied to a piling.
Hydraulic handles operate winches and pulleys
As mentioned earlier, winches pull a pair of counterweights that operate on a fulcrum basis like a seesaw.. When the weights on each side of the ramp are up, the ramp is down. When the weights are down, the ramp is up. The bridge tender lowers the counterweights to raise the ramps before the bridge swings free of the roadway.


Photo courtesy of Marinas.com®. All Rights Reserved

Marinas.com granted permission to include this photo on this webpage. It increases appreciation of how vital the little pontoon bridge has been for 49 years by providing passage across the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

The bridge opens on the hour when vessels are waiting. It opens for commercial vessels at all times. In real life, that means that it might open on the hour for a line of pleasure boats as occurred in photos below, close, and need to be re-opened promptly because a fishing trawler is approaching.

An average of six times per month the tide is so low that the bridge cannot be opened because of the risk of being mired in mud. In that case, boats must wait through low tide until the water level is high enough for the bridge tender to open the bridge safely.

old bridge open for boats
old bridge open for boats
Bridge Tender's House in front of Twin Lakes Seafood Restaurant, during opening for traffic on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Sunset Beach, NC, 05/10/10
old bridge open for boats
old bridge open for boats
Bridge open for boat traffic, 06/04/10
school bus on old bridge
school bridge on old bridge
The foggy beginning of a new day for children living on Sunset Beach

Beginning in 1983, Sunset Beach property owners opposed construction of a high-rise bridge such as those approved for Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach. Opposition and lawsuits continued for a quarter of a century. The cost for a new, high-rise bridge for Sunset Beach rose from an estimated $5.2 million to nearly $31 million. Adding in Department design, inspection and supervision during construction, and legal expenses brought the overall cost to $44,100,000. During those years the North Carolina Department of Transportation spent as much as nearly a half million dollars per year to maintain the old bridge. Besides personnel costs to operate the bridge, all parts of the pontoon bridge are maintained by the NCDOT to ensure safety. The timber roadway surface must be replaced approximately every two years. In comparison to the high expense involved in maintaining the wooden bridge, in 2006 NCDOT spent under $3,800 to maintain the nearby high-rise bridge on Ocean Isle Beach. In FY 2009-2010, NCDOT spent $262,910.57 more on the Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge than it did on the neighboring Ocean Isle Beach Bridge. Operators cost NCDOT approximately $125,000 per year.

Because the bridge opens for commercial vessels regardless of the time, there are additional delays for vehicular traffic. In 2005 the Average Daily Traffic was 4,300 vehicles per day. By 2007 the Annual Average Daily Traffic had increased to approximately 7,000 vehicles per day. It continues to increase. Scores and sometimes hundreds of vehicles are delayed on both the island side and the mainland when the bridge opens. In the right-hand photo below, sailboats pass through the bridge. Vessels on the waterway take precedence because the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was constructed before the bridge.

old and new bridges
gate on old bridge
sailboats going through bridge

For nearly a half century, living at Sunset Beach has required thinking about the bridge. Each meeting, errand, tee-time and low tide walk must be planned to avoid an hourly bridge opening. Eventually those rushing from one activity to another develop an appreciation of the solitude provided by those bridge-caused delays.

trawlers after passing through bridge
Capt. Jarrad

Because of opposition to construction of a new bridge, for nearly 30 extra years both vehicular traffic and boats were held up daily, wasting fuel and ruining people's schedules. Visitors are stranded on the island and mainland for many hours at a time when part of the bridge breaks. During 2009 the cable, affecting thousands of people, broke nine times.

boats waiting for bridge
men repairing bridge
Boats waiting for bridge to open
Sunset Beach Bridge broken on 10/12/04 with workmen repairing it
waiting for broken bridge
broken bridge
Persons wait on the island side (left) and the mainland side (right) while repairs are underway

Sometimes delays were extensive. On Monday, December 15, 2003, when the bridge was closing after a vessel passed through, a nearby barge became wedged between the center portion of the bridge and support pilings. The bridge was closed for 12 hours.

Photo by Jamie Moncrief courtesy of the Wilmington Star-News

On April 28, 2004, a young man with a Sunset Beach address tried to drive across the bridge while it was open. The truck landed upright in 17 feet of water. The driver and passenger swam ashore. Again, the bridge was closed for 12 hours.

boat passing through bridge
boat approaching bridge
Boats passing through the open bridge

The most serious issue has always been safety. Getting a person off the island during a medical crisis such as a seizure, heart attack or attack by a Portuguese Man of War can take a long time. Emergency crews have delays reaching persons in need on the island. The largest ladder truck, weighing 72,000 pounds, cannot cross the bridge because of weight restrictions. If the maximum load of the bridge is exceeded, one or more of the pontoons becomes submerged and sinks. Beach fires spread rapidly. Half of the houses on the island could burn down if trucks were unable to respond to a fire call.

On several occasions some folks who did not mind bridge delays traveled to Sunset Beach in mule-drawn covered wagons. Ken Tyndall from Last Hill Mule Farm shared photos from visits here. One of the trips was described in Rural Heritage Magazine by Shannon Hoffman, as told to her by Ken Tyndall. When one man, Billy Stevenson, decided to walk across because he was afraid that the bridge might collapse from the wagons (he is walking ahead in the left photo above), a woman visiting from Georgia eagerly hopped in the wagon to take his place. During a pleasant ride on the beach at low tide, the mules were more concerned about the waves than they had been about crossing the bridge.

fishing at the bridge
The bridge tender house
A lone fisherman at dawn

In December 2007 Judge Louise Flanagan refused to grant an injunction requested by the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and the Brunswick Environmental Action Team to deny construction of the high-rise bridge. That allowed NCDOT to award the contract. The opponents withdrew their final lawsuit. One cannot argue with the wisdom of construction of the high-rise bridge. The pontoon bridge has a sufficiency rating of four on a scale of one to 100.

the pontoon bridge
the pontoon bridge

The contract was awarded to English Construction Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia. On February 19, 2008, English Construction staff, along with NCDOT engineers, arrived on the site. Soon afterwards workmen began to clear trees and do other preliminary tasks. After nearly three years, the Mannon C. Gore Bridge to Sunset Beach opened on November 11, 2010.

A walk and bike ride was held on November 1, 2010 before the new bridge was open for vehicles. Hundreds of people gathered on one of the most glorious afternoons ever in Sunset Beach. These sailboats passed through the bridge after it opened at 2 PM. They are occupied by people going south to escape winter in the North. We call them "Snowbirds." Strangely, during the walk I never heard a word about the new bridge. Everyone was mesmerized by the gyrating old bridge below.
These cyclists rode over the new bridge from the mainland to the island. They returned to the mainland after cars crossed the bridge during one green light.
the pontoon bridge open for boats
the pontoon bridge closing
A construction worker waited patiently while the Pontoon Bridge opened and closed and then called on his cell phone to let co-workers know that it was back in place, 06/03/10
do not mow sign for threatened lilies
A touching aspect of construction of the new Sunset Beach Bridge is the effort of the NC Department of Transportation to preserve a threatened species of lily. In 2005 unususal signs piqued my curiosity years. I learned from Mason Herndon, NC DOT Environmental Supervisor, that the Rain Lily, Zephyranthes simpsonii, grew in the right of way across from Bill's Seafood. At least three years before English Construction Company arrived in Sunset Beach, NC DOT was already protecting one of our natural resources, knowing that the area where they grew would be re-routed when a new intersection leading to the bridge was built.

In the Spring of 2007 1,166 bulbs of the lily were moved to the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Agency. After the bridge has been completed, they will be replanted near the mainland base of the new bridge. Melissa Miller, NCDOT Environmental Biologist, supervised the relocation. The lily photos were taken by Ms. Miller.

The lilies bloomed were in bloom again in May 2010.

Zephyranthes simpsonii
Zephyranthes simpsonii
Zephyranthes simpsonii, Rain Lilies, growing at the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Agency

The new Sunset Beach Bridge opened to traffic on November 11, 2010. The pontoon bridge, detour and work bridges will be removed after the new bridge is in use.

the Sunset Beach pontoon bridge

Plans are underway to move the bridge tender's house and other portions of the pontoon bridge to an empty lot immediately west of the new bridge on the side of Hwy. 179 opposite the fire department.
Meredith Hannon of Herndon, Virginia, stands beside her painting of the Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge. It was chosen as the official Town painting of the bridge and hangs in Town Hall.

To order print(s) of this painting, please contact Meredith directly at andersml@gmail.com or click here: http://www.etsy.com/listing/59168620/sunset-beach-pontoon-bridge-giclee-print.