Old Cooper River Bridges – Charleston, South Carolina
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The old Cooper River bridges were two parallel bridges officially called the Grace Memorial Bride and the Pearman Bridge. The Grace Memorial Bridge was known fondly (and also somewhat fearfully) by locals as the “Old Bridge.” Its two narrow lanes (10 feet each with no curbs or median) opened for traffic on August 8, 1929, as a toll bridge costing 50 cents per trip. This toll was used to pay for the bridge’s $6 million price tag; it was owned and operated by a private company named Cooper River Bridge, Inc. The president of this company, Charleston native John P. Grace, later served as its namesake.
The bridge took 17 months to build. Prior to 1929, people needing to travel between Charleston and Mount Pleasant did so by private boat or ferry. Like the Ravenel Bridge today, the Grace Bridge actually crossed two bodies of water – the Cooper River and Town Creek. In all, it measured 2.71 miles and it stood 15 feet higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time of its construction, it was the largest bridge of its kind in the world.
27 years later, in 1946, the state of South Carolina purchased the bridge and eliminated its toll. As it happened, a 10,000-ton freighter named “Nicaragua Victory” rammed into the bridge that same year. It ripped out a 240-foot section, causing Elmer Lawson and his family to fall into the water below.
As time passed and traffic grew heavier, the need for a second bridge became apparent. In 1966, a three-lane twin of the Grace Bridge opened, dedicated in honor of then Highway Commissioner, Silas N. Pearman. Most people, of course, knew it simply as the “New Bridge.”
By the 1990s, however, both of these bridges had become unsafe. The Grace Bridge was deemed structurally obsolete and the Pearman Bridge struggled to handle the heavy traffic between Charleston and Mount Pleasant. Local politician Arthur Ravenel spearheaded the campaign for a new bridge, and it was subsequently named in his honor.
The Arthur Ravenel Bridge opened during a week-long celebration in July 2005. An eight-lane, cable-stayed bridge with two diamond shaped towers, it allows clearance for modern ocean freighters to access the Port of Charleston.
When the Grace Memorial Bridge opened in 1929, Charlestonians celebrated for three days! Chuck Boyd of Charleston contributed this picture of his grandmother posing in front of the Grace Memorial Bridge in 1928. He writes, “My grandmother, Alyce May Boyd, is shown primly ‘dressed to the nines,’ standing amid construction on the Charleston side of the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge. She ran a boarding house downtown and construction workers who were staying there escorted her to the bridge – note the tracks used to haul steel up the bridge.”
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