Let’s Take a Ride on the Old Cooper River Bridge by Cherrie Redd-Brown (MIRC)
For readers who may not be familiar with the Low Country area of South Carolina, let me introduce you to the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge (also known as the Old Cooper River Bridge), which was completed in 1929 to link Charleston, South Carolina to its neighbors to the east – Mount Pleasant and Isle of Palms. The bridge was named for the former two-term mayor of Charleston John P. Grace, who organized the project. Seventeen months after its construction, the bridge opened with a grand 3-day celebration on August 8, 1929 with a formal ribbon cutting ceremony, automobile races, parades and concerts.
At that time, it was the fifth longest bridge in the world at 1,050 feet and it soared 150 feet above the river. The engineers of the bridge humorously referred to it as the “first roller-coaster bridge” due to its sharp curves, dips and the narrow two lanes which were only 10 feet wide. From my own personal experience I can attest that the engineers definitely stated this correctly!
As a resident of Mt. Pleasant, SC in the early 1980s, I was employed by The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC, which required that I drive the bridge every morning to get to work. Lucky for me, in 1966 the Silas N. Pearman Bridge was constructed alongside the Grace Bridge so that each bridge became a two-lane, one-way bridge instead of the original two-way bridge. In the mornings, if I had not had a chance to drink my second cup of coffee by the time I left home, that was okay because when I arrived to the entry onto the bridge my adrenaline would kick in which would keep me well alert enough to get me down to the bottom. With my hands tightly on the wheel at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, I’d always give an audible sign of relief at the end of my morning roller coaster ride. As time went on, I became a little more comfortable with this carnival ride each morning but I do confess that when my husband and I decided to purchase our first home on James Island, I was thankful to know that my new commute would become a little less stressed.
Both bridges (the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge and the Silas N. Pearman Bridge) have now been replaced with the New Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge also known as the New Cooper River Bridge, pictured here. The old bridges were demolished in 2005 and a big week-long celebration was held that included a public bridge walk, concerts, dinners, and fireworks. This bridge is a beautiful piece of art with eight lanes, four in each direction, and a 12-foot bicycle and pedestrian path which runs along the entire south edge of the bridge overlooking the Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, and is often featured on publicity material for the City of Charleston. (You can watch a clip of the demolition of the old bridge on YouTube, link below)
During the demolition, the SC Department of Transportation collected some pieces of the steel railing of the bridge and produced 4,000 commemorative medallions in honor of the two demolished bridges. Our son gave us one of the medallions as a gift knowing of our love of the Charleston and Mt. Pleasant area.
That Old Cooper River Bridge was indeed a scary drive, so much so that many of my family, close friends and acquaintances refused to go over this bridge. Regardless of my fears of driving over this scary old rusty bridge, my memories of it are fondly etched into my past as it had its own character, charm and beauty. When I discovered the Lever-Karst Film Collection and viewed this footage I was excited and so happy that the Lever Family had taken the time to shoot this footage in 1952, which has become even more endearing since the demolition of the old bridge.
The Lever-Karst collection held at MIRC includes many films donated by Carolyn Karst, daughter of Bernie Lever. Mr. Lever was the founder of Southeastern Film Processing, which was the first motion picture laboratory in Columbia, SC. The collection consists of many home movies of the family, such as the one featured here of the bridge, as well as advertising and educational films, and film equipment.
You can view the feature video here: http://mirc.sc.edu/fedora/repository/usc%3A1907
A few interesting facts on the Old Cooper River Bridge:
- The bridge was a private toll bridge owned by the Cooper River Bridge, Inc. The state of South Carolina purchased the bridge in 1945. In 1946 the 50 cent tolls were lifted.
- In 1929 the bridge was built for Ford Model A cars and horse-drawn carriages. When it opened, a sign was posted banning livestock from crossing.
- On February 24, 1946, a freighter called the Nicaragua Victory plowed through the bridge on the Mount Pleasant side, which caused a 240 feet section of the bridge deck and roadway to collapse. Bill Lawson, his wife, mother, and two young children died when their car fell into the river. All five bodies were still inside the car after the vehicle was recovered.
- U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings commented that he didn’t see the bridge the first time he went over it as a 7-year old; he was cowered on the floorboard of his family’s car at the time.
- The bridge was used as the set for a scene from the 1995 film ‘Die Hard: With a Vengeance’ where the two main characters, McClane and Zeus jump from a bridge onto a container ship. In the film, the bridge was supposed to be near Bridgeport, Connecticut. The production crew chose the Cooper River bridge because there were two of them, meaning that they could film the action that was happening on the Grace from the nearby Pearlman bridge.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGS6tijAdH0 – Video of the demolition of the bridge.
http://oldcooperriverbridge.org/ – A photo article of the dismantling of the two old bridges.
http://www.cooperriverbridge.org/history.pdf – Souvenir article, entitled Cooper River Bridge Celebration, which was written by John P. Grace in August of 1929.