Ten years ago my wife and I toured Tampa Bay, looking for a place to retire. When we passed over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, we were amazed at the breathtaking ride across this stunning suspension bridge that unites Pinellas County with Manatee County. But my first thought was: “How exotic! We’re not in New England anymore. This is Florida.”
Apparently I’m not the only one to have had this thought. Author Nevin Sitler says in Chapter 9 of The Sunshine Skyway Bridge: “At night, with its brilliant yellow cables lit for all to see, it is more than just a bridge. It is the icon of Florida’s west coast, if not the entire state.”
The two Sitlers, Richard and Nevin, père and fils, have set out an ambitious task: to document the construction of this bridge and while doing so fill us in on the details of the lead players. But in most cases they aren’t just players in a vast undertaking, but characters in their own right. Like Governor Bob Graham, of the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Florida state senator Bob Graham campaigned for governor with a “workday” program where he took on the jobs of everyday people, from housewife to policeman to short-order cook. Once elected, he retained his supporters by continuing the workday idea. As governor, Graham fought for construction of the present-day Skyway Bridge, spending a hard-hat workday there as well.
Or Kenneth M. King aka “Sky King,” a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who prevented a man far larger than himself from jumping off the bridge. According to Sitler, King “survived Waco, Vietnam and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.” (Sitler later provides a gruesome depiction of suicide by bridge-jumping, clearly not the best way to go.)
Or George Gandy, who built a predecessor bridge, a causeway in the twenties that now bears his name, the Gandy Boulevard. Here is how Sitler conveys the story of Gandy corralling his opposition:
Erupting like Jack Nicholson in his classic line from A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”), Gandy lacerated board members. “They bear the stamp of one man, you say?” he uncharacteristically shouted. “You bet they do! And I’m that man! If that bridge is ever built…it will be by some fellow who gets behind it like I have and never quits.” The engineers were impressed and gave their immediate approval.
Such men (sorry, no women) appear in special sections of the book called “Post Span.” In fact, the whole book is designed in a fashion that will appeal to the popular (as well as the scholarly) reader of history. For example, it’s not just about the construction of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but about the other bridges that preceded it, as well as different modes of transportation across the bay like ferries and short hop flights. This gives the reader context for how difficult the engineering feats were, both in the early days and the present.
He does not shy away from the grisly either, as he relates the story of the 1980 collision in Tampa Bay between the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender Blackthorn and the oil tanker Capricorn. (Twenty-three of the ship’s fifty crewmen perished.) And only three months later, the Summit Venture freighter hit the bridge. Here is Sitler’s vivid description:
The bow of Captain Lerro’s ship veered out of the channel and struck a support column on the southbound span’s support pier at 7:34 a.m., resulting in a horrendous collapse of the 1971 main span. Several automobiles, a pickup truck and one Greyhound bus soared at nearly seventy miles an hour into the bay 150 feet below. Thirty-six people fell into the bay that day. All but one died.
This historical narrative observes the style you might find on a placards at an engaging historical museum exhibit. This is not surprising, since Nevin Sitler is the historian-in-residence at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
Accompanied by excellent photographs, The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a book you might want to give to your northern friends and relatives; you know, the ones who are always teasing you: “Florida! Whatever happens down there?”