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A Tale Of Three Bridges

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Few symbols are more identifiable with Charleston than the iconic Ravenel Bridge spanning the Cooper River and connecting downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The third longest cable-stayed bridge in the western hemisphere (after Louisiana's Audubon Bridge over the Mississippi and New York's Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the mouth of New York's harbor), the Ravenel opened to great acclaim in 2005, one year ahead of schedule and under budget. It carries more than 96,000 vehicles a day along the 1400-foot span between its distinctive diamond-shaped towers, and is expected to carry 100,000 cars per day by 2030.

The "roller coaster" Grace bridge

It's only the third bridge over the Cooper River which, until 1929, could only be crossed by commercial ferry or private boating. In that year, the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge opened to traffic, named for the Charleston mayor who spearheaded the building campaign. The largest bridge of its kind in the world at the time, the Grace was a cantilevered truss bridge with a narrow two-lane roadbed so steep that it became known as the "roller coaster bridge." Privately owned and maintained, drivers had to pay an equally steep toll for the time of $1.00. The toll remained in effect until 1943, when the city of Charleston purchased the structure and, three years later, lifted the toll.

The Pearman (left) and Grace bridges

The bridge's 10-foot-wide lanes were fine for the Model A Fords of the day, but by the 1950's they'd become dangerous for wider and bulkier vehicles in greater and greater numbers. Fender-benders and worse became so common (it became known to Charlestonians as "the scariest bridge in the world") that the city decided a second bridge was called for. This was the Silas Pearman bridge, another truss bridge built parallel to its older cousin, but with modern 12-foot wide lanes. Opened in 1966, the Pearman carried northbound traffic toward Mt. Pleasant, while the older Grace took vehicles south into downtown Charleston.

But the two sister bridges only lasted until the late 1970's, when they were rendered obsolete due to structural deterioration and the coming of larger, taller container ships too big to pass under them to reach the new Wando River container port, a serious liability for Charleston's and the state's economy. A twenty-year-old effort to raise the $700-million for a new eight-lane bridge was led by Charleston-born

Congressman Arthur J. Ravenel, who relinquished his congressional seat to become a state senator and spearhead the campaign and to help create the South Carolina Infrastructure Bank as the financing conduit for the project. So relentless was his enthusiasm for the new bridge that his fellow state legislators voted to name it in his honor during week-long celebrations preceding its opening to traffic in July of 2005. Unlike its relatively short-lived predecessors, the Ravenel Bridge was designed to last at least a century, an enduring symbol of Charleston's vitality and energy.

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