If you’ve ever made it from St. Petersburg to Tampa in less than an hour, count yourself lucky. It wasn’t always so easy. Prior to 1924, the only way to get between those two points was to drive all the way around the north shore of Old Tampa Bay via Oldsmar. All that changed, however, with the opening of the original Gandy Bridge.
The bridge was named for the man who conceived it and managed its original construction. George S. “Dad” Gandy, who came to St. Petersburg from Philadelphia around 1902, had had a successful career in building trolley lines. He developed a reputation for visionary thinking, but when he revealed his idea to build a bridge across Old Tampa Bay, even his friends thought it absurd.
Gandy felt strongly that the project could and would be done, but he also knew the timing was not right in 1903. St. Petersburg and Tampa would need to have larger and more progressive populations to support such an enormous undertaking. By 1915, conditions appeared to be more favorable. Gandy hired engineers to survey the bay and shoreline, and began lobbying federal and state officials for the appropriate franchises to build a bridge. He faced competition from the Tampa, Atlantic, and Gulf Railroad, which had already submitted plans for a trestle across the bay. Had the railroad been built as planned, it would have crossed Gandy’s proposed route, making an automobile bridge impractical at that time. Local banking houses, businesses, and influential individuals sent a flurry of endorsements by mail and telegram to Washington and Tallahassee, arguing that Tampa and St. Petersburg badly needed the Gandy Bridge to support their continued growth. The push paid off; by February 1918 Gandy had the necessary legislation and permits to proceed.
One more obstacle stood in the way. The United States entered World War I in April of 1918, and major projects like Gandy’s that were not directly beneficial to the war effort were put on hold. Aside from a few small preliminary engineering studies and filling operations, the bridge remained at a standstill. After the war, financing became the main concern. Gandy wanted the bridge to remain under Floridian control, even though it would be a private, not state, project. That meant Floridians would need to put up the three million dollars needed to make the bridge a reality. With the help of professional promoter Eugene M. Elliot, Gandy and his associates managed to convince nearly four thousand investors to contribute, and by September 1922 construction had begun.
The work required to build the Gandy Bridge was extensive, especially for the 1920s. Two years were spent dredging two and a half million tons of sand, casting 2,400 steel-reinforced concrete piles, and laying two and a half miles of concrete decking. This massive endeavor required the work of a small army of over 1,500 workers. In addition to more than a dozen workshop buildings, the builders set up an entire camp just for the bridge workers. Called “Ganbridge,” it featured bath houses and dormitories, along with warehouses, offices, and amenities for the residents.
When completed, the Gandy Bridge became the world’s longest toll bridge, stretching six miles from shore to shore. In addition to becoming an invaluable aid for moving traffic between Tampa and St. Petersburg, the enormity and uniqueness of the span made it a tourist attraction in itself. Numerous postcards depicting the bridge were published over the years.
The Gandy Bridge was dedicated on November 20, 1924 with an elaborate series of ceremonies and festivities. Governors from sixteen states attended the opening, having driven down from a conference in Jacksonville. With a large crowd of press representatives and bridge officials gathered, Florida Governor Cary A. Hardee untied a rope of flowers, and the party of governors drove across the bridge, marking the start of its public service.
The original Gandy Bridge remained the principal route between St. Petersburg and Tampa until 1956, when a second span was added to accommodate the growing number of automobiles needing to cross the bay. The original bridge remained in use until 1975, and the 1956 addition remained in operation until 1997. New parallel bridges were opened in 1975 and 1996 to replace the ones that were closed. While the original 1924 Gandy Bridge is no more, the 1956 addition was for a number of years preserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic as the Friendship Trail Bridge. As it decayed, however, officials were forced to close the bridge indefinitely. Its fate remains uncertain.
With its many rivers, lakes, bays, and islands, Florida is home to an especially large number of magnificent bridges. Tell us about your favorite Florida bridge by leaving us a comment below or on Facebook!