Historic Structures

Grace Memorial Bridge - Old Cooper River Bridge, Charleston South Carolina

Date added: November 17, 2017 Categories: South Carolina Bridges

The John P. Grace Memorial Bridge, constructed in 1928-1929, carries U.S. Route 17 traffic southbound over Town Creek, Drum Island and the Cooper River between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. It is a two-lane structure, 1.9 miles in length, with a curb to curb width of 20' with the exception of an emergency pull-off section on Drum Island. The Grace Memorial Bridge, which was opened for traffic in 1929 and first operated as a toll bridge, became the property of South Carolina Department of Transportation in 1945. A companion bridge, the Silas N. Pearman Bridge, was built in 1966 directly south of the Grace Memorial Bridge, to handle increasing vehicular traffic volume across the Charleston Harbor and metropolitan area.

Still reeling from the effects of the Civil War, the hurricanes in 1885 and 1893, and the earthquake of 1886, Charleston continued to struggle with poverty and a wavering economy into the early twentieth century. Port business fell dramatically from the 1870s to World War I. The cotton mills established at the end of the nineteenth century failed. The railroads that bolstered other small towns throughout the South either bypassed Charleston or charged discriminatory rates.

At the turn of the twentieth century, however, Charleston started to enter a period of growth. The 1901 South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition attracted international attention and resulted in the establishment of several new factories and businesses. The most important economic change was the relocation of the U.S. Navy Yard to Charleston in 1901. It became the largest employer in the area and changed the character of the city. A large number of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Poland and Russia settled in Charleston during this period creating a new atmosphere.

This new constituency voted in the city's first Irish Catholic mayor in 1911. John Patrick Grace was born in Charleston in 1874, went to law school at Georgetown University, and came back to the city to practice law and start his political career. Grace worked hard to improve Charleston's infrastructure and amenities as well as boost the city's economic health by bringing in new railroads and securing better rates. Although he lost reelection in 1915, he was voted in again in 1919. In his second term, he upgraded the city's wharves and bolstered the growing tourism trade by encouraging the construction of the Francis Marion Hotel on King Street. The hotel was the largest in the Carolinas when it was completed in 1924. He also supported the new bridge over the Ashley River that opened in 1926.

The Ashley River Bridge was just one of many new road projects undertaken in Charleston County during the 1920s. Between 1917 and 1926, the number of cars in South Carolina jumped from 40,000 to 170,000 resulting in a tremendous need for highway improvements. The state highway department busied itself replacing ferries with bridges and paving and widening projects. The 1920s were a boom period for highway construction activity in Charleston County. Along with the replacement Ashley River Bridge, there was several other bridge projects including the Wappoo Creek Bridge connecting James Island and the mainland (1926) and eight other short spans over smaller creeks on the West Side of the Ashley River. These projects led to new development across the Ashley River. Folly Beach became a prime summer beach area after the construction of the Wappoo Bridge in 1926. The Ashley River Memorial Bridge gave rise to a number of new neighborhoods including the 600-acre Riverland Terrace on James Island, Edgewater Park on the Stono River, and Windermere located just across the bridge. According to Grace and local developers, the boom on the West Side of the county could be replicated on the eastern side of the Cooper River if a bridge was constructed from Charleston to replace the slow and irregular ferries. A few areas like Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island already contained towns and beach resorts, but developers wanted more.

Mount Pleasant was originally made up of a number of plantation villages. When the towns merged in 1837, the community retained the name Mount Pleasant after Jacob Motte's estate. The village developed rapidly as a summer resort for the planters of Christ Church Parish and Charlestonians and eventually a number of planters became permanent village residents, commuting to their plantations to attend to daily business. An amusement area complete with picnic facilities and a social hall (known as Alhambra Hall) was constructed here in 1847. The town also served as the county seat of Berkeley County from 1884 until 1898 when it again became part of Charleston County.

Lying at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor, Sullivan's Island had been inhabited by European settlers since the seventeenth century. It became an important military post in the defense of Charleston beginning in 1674. Fort Moultrie saw fighting in the American Revolution and the Civil War and was also activated in the Spanish American War and World War II.

The island was also used by Charlestonians as an escape from "summer fevers." The first pest house was established on Sullivan's Island in 1707 to quarantine the ill. Those who found it beneficial to their health were allowed to reside on the island beginning in 1791 and from there it developed into a summer village. Incorporated in 1817, the town of Moultrieville on Sullivan's Island contained around 200 homes in the early nineteenth century. Most of the buildings were destroyed during the Civil War and the island was all but abandoned. The summer residents, however, returned and rebuilt and by the late nineteenth century, much of the western half of the island was again populated.

In the late nineteenth century, developers sought more from Sullivan's Island and neighboring Long Island. Dr. Joseph S. Lawrence became interested in developing the islands as a resort area in 1898. He presided over the construction of a trolley line, known as the Charleston and Seashore Railway Company, from Mount Pleasant, through Sullivan's Island, to Long Island (now the Isle of Palms). This trolley speeded the development of the eastern end of Sullivan's Island and another town, Atlanticville, arose there around 1903. By 1917 there were houses on nearly all of Sullivan's Island's dry lots.

The two islands were further primed for development when bridges were built over Cove Inlet connecting Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island in 1926 and Breach Inlet between Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms in 1927. However, to reach these islands from Charleston, one still had to travel by ferry across the Cooper River. Ferries connected Mount Pleasant with Charleston as early as 1748, when Henry Gray was granted a charter between Charleston and Christ Church Parish. In the 1770s, Andrew Hibben obtained a charter to operate a ferry near the village of Mount Pleasant to Charleston. Hibben' s descendents continued to operate a ferry here until 1850. The Mount Pleasant Ferry Company began crossing the river twice daily in 1856. It continued until 1898 when it was taken over by the Seashore Railway Company, which controlled the trolley line from Mt. Pleasant to Sullivan's Island. The trolley company retained control of the ferry until 1923 when the first break in ferry service occurred since 1748. Residents were forced to use their own boats to cross the channel until the state of South Carolina formed the Cooper River Ferry Commission in 1924 and reinstated ferry service. This unfortunate circumstance created much agitation within the community and fueled the public's need for a bridge over the river.

The new owners of the Isle of Palms, Charles R. Allen, Harry Barkerding and their partners, were also in need of a bridge over the river. The island was not growing as developers had initially hoped despite twenty years of effort. Unlike Sullivan's Island, the Isle of Palms remained largely uninhabited until the late nineteenth century. At nearly twice the size of its neighbor, developers saw great potential in this sea island. The trolley line led to the construction of several hotels along with a dance pavilion and an amusement park, but it still never achieved the popularity of Sullivan's Island. By 1925, the main hotel on the Isle of Palms had burned, and the "property was in a state of melancholy neglect." To the owners of the Isle of Palms, easy access to the island from Charleston via a bridge over the Cooper River seemed to be the only answer to their problems.

Various plans for a bridge had been proposed for many decades, but cost always made them impractical. By the mid-1920s, the time was ripe to push such a massive project and former Charleston Mayor John P. Grace stepped up to lead the way. He had ambitions of a bridge for a number of years and often discussed the possibilities with engineer and brother-in-law, Major J. Frank Sullivan. In the summer of 1925, Grace traversed the Cove Inlet bridge from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan's Island and began to dream about the effect of a bridge on the Isle of Palms. Meanwhile the Isle of Palms owners also began working on a passage over the river, but they found it to be too costly and politically charged for them to handle. To speed their efforts, they asked Grace to take charge and function as their attorney to which he agreed. The investors announced their intentions to construct the bridge on June 4, 1926 and the Cooper River Bridge, Inc. was organized. All of the men associated with the project were also partners in the Isle of Palms, Inc. 17 For several months thereafter Grace worked tirelessly, obtaining permits from the city council, the state legislature, and the U.S. War Department. In May 1927 the city of Charleston granted them right-of-ways. Grace went to Columbia, the state capital, for the 1927 legislative session to lobby support for the project. When it was discovered that the bill establishing the bridge required construction to begin within ninety days, Grace pressed his friend Governor John G. Richards to hold his signature until the next legislative session. Without this lag time, the bridge could not have been constructed since the investors were not prepared with their finances or contractors.

Immediately after this, the group worked on obtaining capital for the project. Grace went to Chicago to negotiate a contract with the nationally known financial institutions of Byllesby & Co. and Federal Securities. On June 7, 1927, a year after the initial plans were made public, the Cooper River Bridge, Inc. representatives signed a contract with the lending firms. In return the companies were to receive 77.5 percent of the capital stock in the bridge company. After the contract was signed, the bank representatives came to Charleston and Grace rallied local businessmen, press, government officials, U.S. Army and Navy representatives and other influential citizens for their support at a banquet at the Charleston Country Club.

The engineering firm of Waddell and Hardesty, based in New York City, was hired to complete preliminary designs for a crossing over the river. Shortridge Hardesty, senior partner in the firm, designed a variety of plans for the bridge including crossings at Sumter, Lee, and Market streets, as well as one further upstream over Daniel Island.

The Market Street proposal was chosen and the initial contract specified at a cost of no more than $3 million. This was all but lost when the U.S. War Department rejected the plan in February 1928 arguing that the clearance was too low for navigation. The Cooper River Bridge Company then resorted to Waddell and Hardesty' s design for a bridge at Lee Street, but that site doubled the cost of the bridge. The War Department initially wanted a 1,800-foot span across the river at Lee Street. Shortridge Hardesty was certain a bridge of such magnitude could not be built for $3 million. He remained pessimistic even after Major General Edgar Jadwin reduced the length to 1,000 feet and the bankers doubled their investment to $6 million. If the bids came within budget, the bridge was to be built. If not, it would fail.

Grace traveled to New York City to receive the bids on April 10, 1928. "We sat around the table in fear and trembling. We knew the maximum the financiers would risk, and it was the opinion of Waddell & Hardesty that we would not get bids with the figures." Fortunately, to everyone's surprise, the bids were within budget. Four days later contracts were awarded to the Foundation Company of New York for the substructure for the main spans; Charles E. Hillyer of Jacksonville, Florida for the substructure on the approaches; Mcclintic-Marshall of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the main superstructure; and the Virginia Bridge and Iron Company of Roanoke, Virginia for the superstructure for the approaches. Major J. Frank Sullivan served as consulting engineer for the investors.

The Cooper River Bridge, Inc. was then reorganized as a permanent entity. The majority of the common stock was transferred to H.M. Byllesby & Co on April 19. John P. Grace was elected president and other officers were as follows: J.J. Shinners of Chicago was first vice president; H.F. Barkerding was made second vice president; secretary and treasurer was W.H. Pohl of Chicago; and assistant secretary and treasurer was Charles R. Allen. The project was financed by a $3.7 million bond issue that was underwritten by Byllesbey and Co. and Federal Securities. Two classes of stocks were also issued which brought the total amount to $5.75 million.

Groundbreaking for the bridge took place on Saturday, May 19, 1928, at the intersection of Lee and America Streets with over 2,000 people in attendance. State Senator William S. Legare turned the first spadeful of earth with a silver shovel. Speakers included John P. Grace, Mayor Thomas P. Stoney, Colonel Armstrong Heard (the harbormaster of Charleston), Frank Sullivan, and R. Goodwyn Rhett, former mayor and president of the Peoples-First National Bank.

Work on the $5.75 million project began immediately. C. K. Allen served as site engineer for Waddell and Hardesty and resided in Charleston throughout the entire construction process. The Foundation Company of New York began their work first and started with Pier 3 which is the second in the main foundations in Town Creek. C. E. Hillyer began work shortly after the Foundation Company on the approaches to the mainland.

By December 14, 1928, work was half finished. On March 18, the Town Creek span was completed and the Cooper River section was finished on June 9, leaving only the paving and minor touches to be completed. The entire construction of the bridge took less than fifteen months and finished three months ahead of schedule. However during the bridge's construction, fourteen people lost their lives. The most costly accident occurred on December 1, 1928, when caisson No. 10 tilted causing mud to rush in, smothering seven African American workers to death.

Opening celebrations for the bridge were held over a three-day period from August 8-10, 1929. Festivities included three parades, both on the river and through the streets of Charleston, speeches, boat and automobile races, musical programs, boxing matches, airplane shows, life saving drills, and fireworks. The event also included the opening of the Charleston Airport on Saturday, August 10. Ever mindful of the investors' ultimate purpose in constructing the bridge, nearly all of the events took place on the Isle of Palms. "Charleston, gaily garbed in colors, was a city of animation Thursday, the day being generally observed as a holiday. By train and highway throngs of visitors had come to the state's metropolis to join with their fellow Carolinians in celebrating an event that will always be memorable in the annals of the city." In the first two days of the bridge's opening, $4,800 was collected in tolls. Over the entire weekend, 11,452 cars crossed the bridge transporting approximately 38,041 people.

The operators of the bridge and local residents expected marvelous things from the bridge. The town of McClellanville, anticipating a boom from the bridge and the paving of Route 40, incorporated in 1926. The mayor of Mt. Pleasant was ecstatic.

The Cooper River Bridge Company expected thousands of drivers to pay their tolls. They advertised the new structure in magazines and newspapers all over the country trying to persuade individual motorists to use Route 40 through Charleston rather than the more inland roads. They even employed a movie company to film the bridge under construction to show in theaters throughout the nation. The owners emphasized the fact that the new bridge made travel from the northern states to Florida 40 miles shorter. Prior to 1925, when driving from Georgetown to Charleston on Route 40 (U.S. 17), one had to board four ferries. Many travelers chose alternative routes rather than bother with the tedious boats. A bridge over the Sampit River just south of Georgetown was constructed in 1925 and bridges over the South and North Santee rivers were completed in 1928 leaving the passage over the Cooper River as the last ferry on Route 40 through the Low country.

The Bridge Company also believed that trucks would use the bridge for hauling "all kinds and descriptions of freight." Barges and ships transported many goods in the area. "Trucks and wagons will handle practically all of the farm products, groceries, ice, fertilizer, gasoline and oil, building supplies and other commodities from and to Charleston." It was expected that the number of truck farms on the east side of the Cooper River would increase as it had west of the Ashley. Rice production died at the end of the nineteenth century and cotton was essentially wiped out with the boll weevil in 1917. Truck farming had become increasingly economical in the area after the Civil War when railroads were used to ship produce to northern markets.

Since all of the original members of the Cooper River Bridge Company had interests in the Isle of Palms, they also expected the island to develop quickly as a result of the bridge. Beautiful maps of the projected development on the Isle of Palms included lakes, golf courses, and hotels were sent to bridge investors in an attempt to get them to purchase stocks.

Despite all of the publicity and the success of the opening weekend, the Grace Memorial Bridge could not escape the Depression. Completed just two months before the 1929 stock market crash, the bridge faced financial problems from the start. Funds to pay off bonded indebtedness were expected to come from tolls, but not enough travelers were using the bridge. As a result, it was offered for sale for delinquent taxes on September 20, 1929. Fortunately a 100-mile strip of Route 40 was paved near Georgetown on October 1, 1929 and saved the bridge from sale. The bridge, however, continued to flounder from an economic perspective. The Chicago bankers who loaned money for the bridge's construction, proposed lowering the interest rate on the bonds from six to two percent in November 1932, which sparked a lawsuit from bondholders trying to protect their interests. The Cooper River Bridge Corporation continued to struggle with tax problems, but finally convinced the city and the county to reduce their assessments in 1932 and 1934 respectively. These reprieves, however, did not help and in 1936 the corporation filed for reorganization under bankruptcy laws citing a $487,879 deficit. There was a drive for the state to purchase the bridge, but it failed and the county stepped in and bought it in September 1941 for $4.4 million. The state officially changed the name of the bridge in 1943, to the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge to honor the former mayor.

The state's effort to purchase the bridge persisted and on March 3, 1945, South Carolina bought the structure for $4.15 million. In its purchase of the bridge, the state agreed to remove the toll. Many residents believed that the toll costs hampered development and curtailed truck farming on the east side of the river. Rates were 50 cents each way for every car and an extra 15 cents for each additional passenger. Trucks were charged even more. These rates were higher than the original ferry service and kept many drivers from using the bridge. By the time the toll was lifted, the rate was 50 cents per person.

With the announcement of the toll removal, the area referred to as the "Forgotten County" between Mount Pleasant and Georgetown, began to see new development. New neighborhoods were planned in Mount Pleasant and real estate values rose. Industries, once deterred by the $4.00 round trip fee for their trucks, became more inclined to locate on the east side of the river. The state removed the toll requirement on June 29, 1946, with a public celebration including a parade, speeches, ribbon cutting ceremony, dances, and fireworks.

The Isle of Palms, which held so much promise for the original creators of the Cooper River Bridge Company, also did not show signs of significant development until the toll was lifted. Isle of Palms, Inc. failed and was taken over by Hardaway Contracting Company in 1934. J.C. Long of the Beach Company acquired the land in 1944 and constructed new roads and low-cost housing there for veterans returning from World War II in 1946. The island faced its biggest boom in the 1970s when the Sea Pines Company, major developers on Hilton Head Island, built their 900-acre resort known as Wild Dunes. The Isle of Palms, Sullivan's Island, and Mount Pleasant continue to flourish. Mount Pleasant's population more than doubled between 1980 and 1990 and it continues to grow with a population of over 44,000. Both the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island have witnessed less of a population increase, but they are home to over 5,000 year round residents.

The bridge itself has also seen a few changes over the years. Built to withstand high winds and the impact of a 10,000-ton steamer, the Grace Memorial Bridge fell victim to both on February 24, 1946, when the outgoing tide and gale force winds slammed the freighter Nicaragua Victory into the structure. The ship destroyed a 240-foot section of the bridge and sent a family of five to their deaths. The accident knocked out three 80-foot deck plate girders on the trestle approach to Mount Pleasant and traffic was rerouted through Monck's Corner, some fifty miles away. To fix the bridge, highway department workers installed an elevated temporary bridge or Bailey span between the two broken ends so that traffic could continue over the crossing but not interfere with permanent repairs. Invented by Donald C. Bailey of the British Ministry of Supply during World War II, the Bailey bridges were created from prefabricated, interchangeable trussed panels and could span as much as 240 feet. With the Bailey span in place, the bridge reopened to traffic on April 3 and the repairs were complete on June 7, 1946.

The bridge quickly outlived its usefulness. As described in a 1957 review of the bridge, "For most of those [twenty-eight] years [of operation], it hasn't been adequate to handle north and south-bound traffic on U.S. 17 between Charleston and Mount Pleasant. For the past several years it has been pitifully lacking." By this time, traffic was bumper-to-bumper and accidents and delays were frequent. The narrow roadbed was often to blame for collisions. Many worried about the safety of the bridge and the state legislature called it a white elephant.

To alleviate traffic by providing a place for disabled and emergency vehicles, a 180-foot section of the structure was widened from 20 feet to 34 feet at its lowest point on Drum Island in 1960. This was the only major structural alteration made to the bridge in its history.

By the 1960s the tremendous traffic flow across the bridge prompted the construction of a parallel bridge. In 1958 an average of 11,614 vehicles crossed the bridge daily. In July during the height of the summer beach season, 14,189 cars and trucks spanned the river everyday. By 1963, 15,000 to 16,000 cars were crossing the bridge during the summer months. Opened in 1966, the Silas N. Pearman Bridge significantly diminished traffic on the Grace Memorial Bridge, but some structural problems were visible. Pier 6 on the Cooper River Channel was leaning as a result of shipworms eating away at the foundation below the water level. The pier was tied to the one of the new pilings on the adjacent Silas N. Pearman Bridge and placed back into position.

The Pearman Bridge is similar to the Grace in most respects. It does not, however, dip over Drum Island, and its cantilever span over the Cooper River channel is 290 feet shorter than the Grace's. It is also three lanes wide with a walkway. With the opening of the Pearman Bridge, the Grace Memorial began to carry traffic in one direction from Mount Pleasant to Charleston while the additional bridge serviced northbound traffic on U.S. 17.

In 1979, trucks were banned from the Grace Memorial Bridge by the highway department which deemed them too heavy for the fifty-year-old structure. In the 1980s, the state highway department and the public began to push for a replacement bridge stating that the bridge was too narrow for modem traffic needs and unable to handle heavy loads. By 1989, the two bridges combined carried more than 65,000 drivers per day and even more in the summer.

he Grace Memorial Bridge stands alone as the largest and the most important metal truss bridge in the state. According to Clemson University's 1981 study of metal truss bridges in South Carolina, the Grace Memorial and the Pearman Bridge are the only ones in the state to measure more than 210 feet long. There are no other bridges in South Carolina that can begin to compare to these structures.