Preserving Florida's Past
6:30 am
Thu December 27, 2012

Troubled Bridge Over Water: Why A Key Part Of Keys' History Is In Danger

The Old Seven bridge may crumble without support.

When the Old Seven Mile Bridge was built, it was an engineering wonder of the early 1900s. Part of Henry Flagler’s famous railway to Key West, it ran across nearly seven miles of open water to connect Marathon to the Lower Keys.

Friends of Old Seven is a group of volunteers led by Bernard Spinrad who are trying to save the historic bridge.
Credit Arianna Prothero

Today, the bridge is still a popular spot with both locals and tourists, but it’s slowly falling apart. Salt water and storms are eroding the bridge faster than the state can afford to repair it. Much of it is now closed. Historians and activists are desperately searching for a way to preserve what's left: a 2.2 mile section of the Old Seven Bridge that is still open to pedestrians and cyclists.

Beauty On The Bridge

If you’ve ever walked along the bridge, you might have passed Mike Cross on one of his regular outings. He uses the bridge for exercise, nature watching and enjoying the keys’ famous sunsets and sunrises.

“You see the sun coming up over the ocean, starts lighting up the water,” Cross said.  “White caps are gorgeous in the sunlight. They’re like little flecks of crystals floating on the surface.”

"If this rating goes down to one, then we need to close the structure for pedestrians." Dennis Fernandez, FDOT

Cross loves history. Before he retired, he worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. restoring old airplanes. Now, he works to preserve a part of the Keys’ history. Cross volunteers with a group called Friends of Old Seven, or FO7, that’s trying to raise money and awareness for the Old Seven Mile Bridge’s restoration.

The bridge became part of the original Overseas Highway in the late 1930s. It's been a set piece in Hollywood films--including the time it was blown up in the 1994 movie, True Lies, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The old bridge entered limbo in the early 80’s when the new, wider Seven Mile Bridge was built right next to it. When that happened, the original Seven Mile Bridge was basically nudged out of Florida’s transportation system.

Officials estimate restoring the bridge will cost $18 to $20 million. FDOT said it will pay half. FO7 is trying to find the other half.
Credit Arianna Prothero

For that reason, The Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, cannot afford to sink a lot of money into the bridge’s upkeep. FDOT District Six Structures Maintenance Administrator Dennis Fernandez is the engineer in charge of all the bridges in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties. He said reports on the bridge do not look good.

“The deck is serious, the superstructure is critical, the substructure is poor,” said Fernandez.

FDOT ranks bridge parts on a scale of one to 9, 9 being the safest. The deck is the flat surface of the bridge, and it rests on the superstructure.  The deck has a rating of three, the superstructure’s rating has dropped down to a two.

“If this rating goes down to one, then we need to close the structure for pedestrians,” warned Fernandez.

He said FDOT wants to transfer ownership of the bridge to Monroe County. Currently, the bridge is a liability for the agency which is unwilling to foot the full restoration costs. Bi-annual inspections and other basic maintenance are already costing FDOT about $60,000 a year. Fernandez said his priority is maintaining new bridges that actually carry vehicular traffic.

Sharing the Wealth

Friends of Old Seven believes the bridge can be an important part of the middle keys’ economy.

“Something that will draw people to the middle key, instead of us just being a gas stop on the way to Key West,” Mike Cross explained. “They’ll get a better understanding of the whole keys and not just rushing to Key West to get drunk and fall down ‘cause that’s where Hemingway fell down when he got drunk.”

First, FO7 has to make sure the bridge doesn’t get shut down.

Bernard Spinrad is the president of FO7. Before he retired, he worked for years in the tourism and economic development industries. He was formally Aruba’s tourism director.

Spinrad envisions the bridge becoming the Keys’ equivalent of The High Line in New York City, which was an abandoned railroad that was converted into a popular park.  Other equivalents would be the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY or the Lyons Bridge in Saint Augustine, FL.

“All of them, successful visions of a group of volunteers that got together and saved a valuable, historical resource for posterity," said Spinrad.

But, Spinrad admits they have a long way to go.

He said the group’s first priority is to preserve the bridge and keep it open not only for pedestrians, but also for Pigeon Key Museum which is tucked between the section of the bridge that is still open and the part that is now closed.

“DOT, about two years ago, declared the bridge unfit for vehicular traffic,” said Spinrad. “And when closing traffic, basically, it prevented Pigeon Key being accessed by vehicle from Marathon.”

The work camp for the men who built the Old Seven Mile Bridge 100 years ago is on Pigeon Key, and the entire island is now a museum.

Right now there are only two ways to get to the to the museum: a ferry run by Monroe County and by the bridge.

Riet Steinmetz is a tour guide at Pigeon Key Museum. She says the ferry is pretty expensive for the County to operate.

“So far the county has funded that, but they are ready to stop that too.” Steinmetz said that if the ferry stops and the bridge closes, then Pigeon Key Museum will have to shut down as well.

History Isn't Cheap

"Nowadays, with the economy the way it is, we've got a pack of dogs and one bone." Mike Cross, FO7

FDOT is willing to kick in half the money needed to restore the bridge. Spinrad said estimates for repairing the bridge are between $18 and $20 million.

“That leaves the community as a whole, to put up the other half.”

FO7 is working with Monroe County to come up with the money. According to county officials, the most promising source of money for restoring Old Seven is restoration funds from the BP oil spill.

However, Mike Cross points out there’s a lot of competition for money during tough financial times.

“I think you can sum it up to a pack of dogs in a dog coup,” Cross said. “In the old days you might have 10 dogs and 10 bowls of food. Nowadays, with the economy the way it is, we’ve got a pack of dogs and one bone.”

Cross hopes the bridge project makes the cut because, he said, the history of the keys is rooted in Flagler’s old railway.

“It’s man’s duty to preserve his history because you have to know how you got where you are. It’s that simple in my mind.”

Currently, the old bridge gets inspected every six months instead of every two years like most bridges in the region.

FDOT has begun its most recent inspection. FDOT’s Dennis Fernandez does not think they’ll have to close the bridge at this time. But, he warned, when the rating on the substructure drops from a two to a one, he will have to close the bridge to pedestrians.

UPDATE: This story was originally broadcast and published on November 8, 2012. The Florida Department of Transportation wrapped up that most recent inspection in late November and determined, for the time being, that the bridge is still safe for pedestrian traffic.