Spectacular Spans: A Tour of America's Great Bridges
They come in all shapes and sizes, lengths and locations, ages and angles. For boaters, America's coastal bridges are a fairly common sight, one that often goes unappreciated and undervalued, especially when most of us only get to see them up close from underneath — a unique perspective not often enjoyed by the general public.
Here are the stories of nine of our country's famous bridges that span America’s frequently traveled waterways, along with fascinating facts that you can share as you sail under or drive over them.
Perhaps the world's most recognized span, this 139-year-old granddaddy of bridges took about 13 years to construct, linking Manhattan to Brooklyn and comprising the East River’s first fixed crossing. As the longest suspension bridge in the world when it open in 1883, its main span measures 1,595 feet and deck rises 127 feet above the river's surface.
Its building was a true family affair, designed by John Roebling who died unexpectedly after an injury he sustained in the early stages of the bridge's construction. He was succeeded by his son, Washington who suffered a paralyzing case of caisson disease. Unable to supervise construction in person, he directed the work from his nearby apartment using a telescope overlooking the site, while his wife Emily delivered handwritten instruction notes to the engineers.
Located between Piers 4 & 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River is the new ONE°15 Brooklyn Marina with 100 slips for vessels up to 300+ feet. Estuary, the marina's flagship restaurant, features new American cuisine, and the park is home to numerous restaurants, shops and cafes.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge (aka the Bay Bridge)
Soaring above Chesapeake Bay, this dual-span bridge connects Maryland's densely populated Western Shore with the more rural Eastern Shore, running between Annapolis and Stevensville. The original two-way span opened in 1952; a parallel span was added in 1973 to alleviate congestion. It was only marginally successful.
Especially in summer, the bridge is often referred to as "the world's tallest traffic jam," packed bumper-to-bumper nearly 200 feet above the Bay. Because of its height, narrow spans, low guardrails and frequent high winds, the Bay Bridge is cited by some as one of the scariest crossings in America. But to west-bound travels, the sun setting over its tall towers and curved steel girders is a spectacular sight.
Located at the eastern base of the bridge on Kent Island is Bay Bridge Marina, which accommodates boats up to 70 feet. Sandy Point State Park Marina awaits on the west side for day use and fueling. Several other marinas are nearby.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT)
Hailed as one of the great engineering marvels in the world when it opened in 1964, the original CBBT required the construction of four artificial islands, two miles of causeway, nearly six miles of approach roads, two-mile-long tunnels, four high-level bridges and 12 miles of trestle. It crosses the Chesapeake Bay between Cape Charles on the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Beach on the mainland.
The CBBT crosses two key East Coast shipping lanes. High-level bridges were initially proposed to span these channels, but the U.S. Navy objected to a bridge over one of the channels, because a collapse could cut off the Norfolk Naval Station from the Atlantic.
Cape Charles Yacht Center and Cape Charles Harbor Marina up the west side of the Delmarva Peninsula put you in the middle of the quaint shoreside town of Cape Charles and its charming shops, restaurants and accommodations.
Florida Keys Seven Mile Bridge
Among the world’s longest bridges when it was built, Seven Mile Bridge connects Knight's Key in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Actually two bridges, the newer span is open to vehicular traffic; the older is only for pedestrians and cyclists.
The older bridge was constructed in the early 1900s as part of the Key West Extension of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway. After the Keys section of the railroad was damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Flagler sold it to the U.S. government, which converted it to automobile use. Unsupported sections were added in 1935 to widen it for vehicular traffic, and the railroad tracks were recycled, painted white and used as guardrails.
Near the center, the bridge rises, providing a 65-foot clearance for boat passage in Moser Channel on the ICW. The remainder of the bridge is considerably closer to the water's surface. Several marinas are on the Marathon end of the bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge
Named one of the Wonders of the Modern World by American Society of Civil Engineers, the 1.7-mile bridge was the world’s longest and tallest suspension bridge when it opened in 1937. Originally designed by engineer Joseph Strauss in 1917, the final design was conceived by Leon Moisseiff, engineer of New York City's Manhattan Bridge.
The relatively unknown residential architect Irving Morrow designed many of the bridge's Art Deco features, but his most famous contribution was its unique color, international orange. Others preferred that it was painted aluminum, dull gray, and the U.S. Navy suggested black and yellow stripes to ensure visibility by passing ships.
The water under the bridge is often turbulent, given the clash of the silt-heavy Bay waters and the cold Pacific Ocean currents. Consequently, recreational and commercial traffic are carefully monitored and regulated.
Looking to dock and dine nearby? Try the north end of the bridge. Le Garage at Schoonmaker Point Marina in Sausalito serves innovative French cuisine, and at the casual eatery, Fish, place an order at the counter and sit at one of the picnic tables overlooking Clipper Yacht Harbor.
The engineering marvel often called "Mighty Mac" is the longest suspension bridge with two towers between anchorages in the Western Hemisphere, with a shoreline-to-shoreline length of five miles. Opened in 1957, it took three and a half years to build, because Michigan's harsh winters limited construction to the summer months. Engineers faced daunting challenges. The Great Lakes freeze during the winter, causing large icebergs to place enormous stress on the bridge’s base.
The total length of wire in the main cables is an amazing 42,000 miles, enough to wrap around the Earth nearly twice. Painting the bridge takes seven years; when workers finish, they immediately start again.
Locals note that the current in the Straits of Mackinac frequently changes direction, and when combined with wind-blown waves, churn from passing freighters and rebound off the bridge pilings, boating under and near the bridge can be challenging.
St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula has a full-service public marina with 136 slips and is close to shops, cafes and restaurants, like the Mackinac Grille & Patio Bar.
Sunshine Skyway Bridge
One of Florida’s most iconic sights, the current Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1987 and is the second bridge of that name on this site. The striking cable-stayed span connects the St. Petersburg peninsula to Terra Ceia, just north of Bradenton. The original bridge opened in 1954. A similar structure was built parallel and to the west of it in 1969 to make it a four-lane bridge.
In 1980, the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with one of the bridge's supports during a storm, causing the southbound span to collapse and sending vehicles into Tampa Bay. After the disaster, the northbound span was converted to carry one lane in either direction until the current bridge opened.
If you're headed into Tampa Bay, Terra Ceia Preserve State Park is on your starboard side, a 2,000-acre mangrove forest and wetlands offering kayaking, fishing and nine miles of hiking trails. At the St. Pete end of the bridge, check out O'Neill's Marina near Maximo Park.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge
The name Tacoma Narrows Bridge has been given to three different incarnations of this span connecting the city of Tacoma with the Kitsap Peninsula to the west. The original bridge opened in 1940 and spectacularly collapsed just four months later due to design flaws that resulted in what was termed "aeroelastic flutter." It was replaced by the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1950, which is still used for westbound traffic. A third parallel span opened in 2007 to carry eastbound traffic.
The collapse of the original bridge — nicknamed Galloping Gertie — had a major impact on the field of bridge aerodynamics, which influenced the design of all the world's long-span bridges built since 1940. The newsreel footage of the collapse can still be viewed on YouTube today.
Just south of the bridge you find Narrows Marina with transient docks that offer 375 linear feet of three-hour complimentary guest side ties and 13 overnight moorage slips. The Narrows Brewing Company and Boathouse 19 restaurant are steps away.
This massive suspension bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island opened in 1964 after decades of on-again off-again planning and five years of construction. Each tower is made up of more than a million tons of metal, one million bolts and three million rivets. The four main suspension cables are 36 inches in diameter, and each is composed of 26,108 wires totaling 142,520 miles in length. Due to thermal expansion of the steel cables, the upper roadway’s height is 12 feet lower in summer than in winter.
The double-decker bridge carries 13 lanes of traffic, seven on the upper level and six on the lower level. Both the upper and lower roadways are supported by trusses that stiffen the bridge against vertical, torsional and lateral pressure — thanks to lessons learned from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940.
Fort Wadsworth, at the Staten Island end of the bridge, is one of the oldest military installations in America, built in the early 1800s to protect the Narrows. In 1994, the U.S. Navy turned Fort Wadsworth over to the National Park Service.