With its bright yellow cables and enough fortitude to withstand a ramming from an 87,000-ton ship, the Sunshine Skyway is the tallest bridge in Florida and the fifth-longest span of its kind in the world.
The striking cable-stayed bridge has towered over the southern opening of Tampa Bay for nearly 26 years. Its design has earned recognition from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Travel Channel has ranked it the No. 3 bridge in the world.
“It’s become the shorthand for Tampa Bay,” said David Downing, deputy director at the Pinellas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, noting how the bridge’s image factors into logos for banks and municipalities.
The bridge also has a remarkable – and, at times, harrowing – story that’s never really been fully told, until now.
A book out this month tells the story of the Skyway, along with other notable Bay area bridges.
“Man’s attempts to span the bay have been mentioned in pieces, but there isn’t one complete mention of this,” said St. Petersburg historian Nevin Sitler, who co-authored “The Sunshine Skyway Bridge: Spanning Tampa Bay” with his father, Ric.
While the Sunshine Skyway wasn’t the first bridge to reach over the bay – the Gandy was – its importance lies in its value as a symbol for Tampa Bay and the fact that, without it, you wouldn’t have a straight shot down Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“It’s a story that highlights inventors and investors’ attempts to connect the isolated peninsula of Pinellas with the rest of Florida’s West Coast,” Sitler said.
The book coincides with the 87th anniversary of the launch of the Bee Line Ferry, which took passengers on a 90-minute, 15-mile ride between Pinellas Point and Manatee County’s Piney Point. Increased congestion and commerce punctuated the need for a quicker connection between Manatee County and the rest of the state.
Just a few generations ago, the only way to get from St. Petersburg to Sarasota was an hours-long trek clockwise around the bay. Now, you can make the journey quickly, for just a dollar.
The bridge technically spans three counties, because it cuts through a sliver of Hillsborough. In its planning stages, there was talk of stretching the bridge between Manatee and Hillsborough counties. One of the staunchest advocates for that was former Tampa Tribune
The Skyway initially opened as a two-lane bridge in 1954, but as the region grew, increased congestion led to construction of a nearly identical span, which opened beside it in 1971 to accommodate southbound traffic.
That newer span bore the brunt of one of the biggest disasters to hit the area nine years later, when the phosphate freighter Summit Venture ran into the bridge, causing a massive breach that sent vehicles, including a Greyhound bus carrying 35 passengers, plunging into the bay.
“It’s a marker in time — one of those before — and after moments of the destination,” Downing said.
That disaster happened just months on the heels of the Blackthorn incident, a fatal collision between a tanker and a Coast Guard vessel that happened near the bridge.
Allan Horton, then a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, still remembers his editor calling him one foggy morning to cover the bridge collapse on May 9, 1980.
“I walked out to the edge of the span and looked down, and there was the bus floating there,” he said. “And you couldn’t see through the windshield, thank goodness. But you knew nobody was going to survive.”
Horton’s other connection to the bridge is his father, Freeman Horton, the engineer who designed the initial span.
“I actually worked on the crew that surveyed Tampa Bay in my father’s boat,” he said.
When it was time to add the second span, the new governor went with another firm with a slightly different design that left out heavy wooden “timbers” that may have softened the blow from the ship.
Another dark chapter in the Skyway’s history involves the people who have jumped from the bridge over the years, trying to kill themselves. The Sitlers struggled with how to cover a topic that already garners frequent attention and settled on telling that part of their Skyway’s story through retired state trooper Ken King. Nicknamed “Sky” King, Sitler said he talked at least 10 potential jumpers out of going off the bridge.
“Obviously we had to bring it up,” he said. “Being able to do it on a positive note by showcasing the heroism of Ken King was able to accomplish that without being macabre.”
The 4.1-mile, $244 million-bridge dubbed the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened with great fanfare on April 20, 1987. Downing thinks of it as more than a bridge. It’s an experience — “the best dollar you’ll spend while you’re here,” as a recent visitors guide describes it.