Sunshine Skyway Bridge

A dramatic tale of three bridges crossing the mouth of Tampa Bay. Is it any wonder they became attractions themselves?

Much like California’s San Francisco Bay area, the cities separated by the mouth of Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg and Bradenton – are such a great distance from each other by land (70 miles; 113 km) that a bridge was an obvious need.

The distance bridged is about 4.15 miles (6.7 km) which was a significant distance to cover. Initially, it was served by a car ferry. The one pictured in the postcard below is the Hillsborough, an LSM (landing ship mechanized) – a World War II era ship. The ferry ran between Point Pinellas in Pinellas County and Piney Point in Manatee County until 1954 when the first bridge was completed.

That bridge was a single-lane, steel cantilever construction. Built by the Virginia Bridge Company, the two-lane structure opened on September 6, 1954. It was the first to be named the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

By the 1960s, increased traffic and the construction of Interstate 275 meant that additional traffic lanes were needed, so a second span was built next to the original bridge. The second span opened in 1971 and was basically identical to the original. Once open, both spans were considered the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The year 1980 saw a pair of dramatic and tragic events in the vicinity of the bridge.

Firstly, on January 28, 1980, the US Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, which had just completed a major overhaul at Tampa, collided with the tanker SS Capricorn. The Capricorn’s anchor, which was hanging off its side in preparation for being deployed, ripped through the cutter and caught hold. As the two ships moved away from each other, the anchor held fast which caused the Blackthorn to quickly capsize and sink. 23 of her crew were killed in the incident and 27 survived.

The second incident involved the 580 foot (177 m) long cargo ship Summit Venture. On May 9, 1980, during a major thunderstorm, the Summit Venture struck one of the piers on the newer bridge. This destroyed 1,400 feet (427 m) of the bridge, causing eight vehicles, including a bus, to careen the 165 feet (50 m) into the bay. A total of 35 people died, 26 on the bus alone.

The original bridge was in use until 1987 when the current bridge was completed. Both of the first two bridges were dismantled, though the bridge approaches are used as fishing piers.

The new bridge was also named the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. A cable-stayed, steel and concrete structure, it was designed by the Figg & Muller Engineering Group and built by the American Bridge Company. To eliminate the potential of damage from ships, the bridge piers were placed on small artificial islands that were called “dolphins”.

The American Bridge Company also built the following notable bridges: San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, Mackinac Bridge and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as well as many skyscrapers including the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) and the Empire State Building. Significant buildings it constructed in Florida include: The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center and Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort.

The Sunshine Skyway (all three of them) have been popular Florida tourist attractions equal to nearby sites such as Ft. De Soto Park on the north side on the bridge and the De Soto National Monument on the south.

Florida has its full share of bridges, but this is the only one that’s a symbol of the entire Sunshine State.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Postcards

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Brochure 1956

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Brochure c1960

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Dawn & Sunset 2019

Sunshine Skyway Bridge Visit 2020