In Coastal Carolina, smattered with small islands, inlets, marshes and waterways, bridges are a constant way of life for residents – from sweeping high rises with grand views of the scenery below to small 20-foot spans that hop a creek or inlet. For many visitors, crossing the bridge, quite literally, is symbolic of their arrival for a family beach vacation, be it Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Beaufort or Topsail. For others, however, namely commuting residents, they can be a thorn in the side for those making a mad dash to work, crossing their fingers that they will miss traffic jams caused by open drawbridges.
At least two of these bridges, the Grayden Paul Drawbridge leading into Beaufort and the Topsail Island Swing Bridge in Surf City, almost two hours to the south, are slated for replacement in the years ahead. Both projects have been met with mixed reviews from the communities they serve and while just about everyone holds dear the historic significance of the aging structures, not all residents are ready to see them replaced. In both communities, almost simultaneously, groups formed, websites were built, meetings were held and the pros and cons of the projects were fiercely debated.
Driving across Radio Island into Beaufort today, it’s apparent that progress is moving forward before our eyes in the third oldest town in the state. The once divided four lanes of traffic are now down to one lane in each direction, orange cones cutting a path and directing the constant flow of cars. Heavy equipment has been moved in, stadium lights are up to illuminate the work and dredge boats are active within the waters of Gallant’s Channel.
The NC Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) website notes that Conti Enterprises Inc. of Edison, NJ was awarded the $66.4 million contract to replace the existing bascule drawbridge with a 65-foot fixed-span bridge, widening Hwy 70 to four lanes with a median through town to Olga Road, just east of Beaufort. Construction is just beginning, with completion of all but landscaping projected for July 2018.
The primary purpose for the bridge, the website continues, is to increase the traffic carrying capacity of Hwy 70 and eliminate delays to vehicular traffic due to bridge openings.
“There is definitely something charming and special about the drawbridge and sentimentally, it’ll be difficult to see that go,” said Beaufort Assistant Town Manager Lauren Hermley, recognizing the unique role that the bridge has played in Beaufort’s history. She added that the new road project will remove a highway from the middle of town, making the community more physically unified and a safe environment for bike riders, walkers and children.
Traffic will instead skirt the northern edge of town, removing traffic and noise from the quiet live oak-lined streets of the historic downtown district and residential neighborhoods.
It is a somewhat bittersweet project for Grayden Paul, Jr., whose father is immortalized by the drawbridge that carries his name. The original Grayden Paul, who died in 1994, played a vital role in Beaufort’s history.
Now in his early 90s himself, Grayden Paul Jr., has a living room that overlooks Turners Creek. Photos of family line shelves and dot the mantle, sharing space with the ship models he painstakingly builds. He’s even built a model of the Alphonso, a sharpie that was filled with fishing and whaling artifacts his father docked in the 1960s and 1970s at what is now Grayden Paul Park at the end of Pollock Street. The artifacts would later make up the humble beginnings of the NC Maritime Museum.
He served as mayor of Beaufort in World War II, sat on the town’s board of commissioners and served a term on the board of education. Though he eventually left politics, Grayden Paul was still a fixture in town. He was one of the founders of the Beaufort Historical Association, established in 1960, and was famous for was his tours aboard the organization’s red, double-decker bus, Paul Jr. explained.
Paul notes that there is talk of making a park where the old drawbridge comes ashore now and naming it after his father to keep the tradition alive. But for Paul and the family, those memories continue to be alive and well regardless.
As are the rich memories in Surf City of the unique swing bridge that residents and visitors delight in watching as it opens wide for passing vessels.
There, NCDOT proposes to replace the existing bridge, built in 1955, with a two lane highrise bridge that will include bike lanes and a multi-use path over the Intracoastal Waterway on Hwy 50/210. This is one of two bridges providing access to Topsail Island.
“The swing bridge will forever remain a part of Surf City’s history and lore, and this applies for both residents and visitors,” said Mayor A.D. “Zander” Guy said. “That said, the current span has served us well for over 60 years and when one considers the environment and conditions in which the bridge has served, that’s quite a testament.”
He added that the ultimate decision for a fixed, highrise span was made by NCDOT, and the basis upon which this decision was made was that the fixed span came in at under $50 million less than the bascule.
“DOT has worked very closely with elected and appointed officials, as well as giving deep consideration to the sentiments of the public. We sincerely appreciate DOT’s willingness to work closely with us on this project,” he said. “In Surf City, our primary concern is for the safety of people and property and in emergency situations the fixed span will serve us best in the long run.”
A final environmental impact statement was released last fall for the Surf City replacement and the project now moves into the right-of-way acquisition phase.
With both projects, both vehicular and marine traffic were an active part of the decision making process, with consideration given to the environmental impact of the new bridge location. There are no current plans to replace any of the nine remaining drawbridges that dot the North Carolina coast.