Bridge to Yesterday
Bridges connect things. The Matanzas Pass Bridge links the north end of Fort Myers Beach to San Carlos Island and the mainland. Prior to its 1979 opening, however, the old Fort Myers Beach Swing Bridge served this vital function for a half-century. When an essential part of that old span recently returned to the beach, it still serves as a bridge, to link a small band of seniors to their youth, and to span the memory of a man with his last wish.
The Estero Island Historical Society accepted the donation of the swing bridge’s pivot bushing at the historic cottages at the Matanzas Pass Preserve on Friday afternoon, May 12. The pivot bushing was actually the only part of the swing bridge to move, as it opened over the water to allow through boats, with the entire 90,000-pound bridge balancing on this one point. To perform this herculean task, the pivot bearing itself was substantial, with the lower half weighing 62 pounds, and the top including its brass cover coming in at 78.6 pounds.
Steve Anderson of Bradenton made the pivot bushing donation, serving as a sort-of bridge himself, to complete the final wish of the late Paul Henderson, a former Lee County bridge maintenance employee with a deep affection for the swing bridge. “I bought a house in North Fort Myers in 1987,” Steve relates. “Two houses down lived Paul, who worked for Lee County into the 1980s, with a large part of his career doing maintenance duties on the swing bridge. Paul’s nickname was ‘The Fireball,’ and if you knew him, you understood why – he was a real Fireball!”
In addition to the pivot bushing, Paul left behind a two-page letter that described the swing bridge. He wrote that “the crew would start its morning with a visit to the bridge and grease the gears. With four fifty-ton jacks, we would raise the bridge until there was a quarter-inch gap at the center bushings. We would then pour a can or two of STP into this gap to create lubricant to ease the wear and tear on the bushings that were the only moving pieces of the bridge.”
Paul’s document states that the bridge was actually built in Germany in 1927, and brought to the United States in 1928 for use in Jacksonville but, either through purchase or barter, diverted instead to Fort Myers Beach in mid-1928. Lee County installed it over the Estero Pass in early 1929, with electricity added in 1943 to open and close it faster. It had a stainless-steel open-face deck through which you could see the water below. Fort Myers Beach needed a new span, as its first wooden bridge from 1921 was lost in the 1926 hurricane. The swing bridge would serve the island for the next 50 years, until the Matanzas Pass Bridge opened in 1979.
Quite The Adventure!
“Paul was part of the crew that tore down the swing bridge,” continues Steve. “Before it got hauled off to a scrap dealer, he saved the top of it that he called the most important part of the bridge, having to pry it off, as welds held it tightly in place. He then came back much later to retrieve the second part. When he told that story, I related it to that scene in ‘Caddy Shack,’ where the priest plays the round of his life in that wicked thunderstorm. Paul took a boat out in a fierce rainstorm, with lightning and wind whipping all around, to get the bottom half. It sounded like quite the adventure!”
To the small band of longtime island residents at the donation ceremony, everything about the old swing bridge seemed like an adventure! For Ann Alsop, Don Baker, AJ Bassett, Russ Carter, Jack Underhill, and a few others, seeing and touching the two-piece pivot bushing was like turning back the hands of time.
“Everybody loved the swing bridge, and when it was about to open, we all wanted to be the one who turned it,” says Russ. When opening or closing it, the bridge tender – or a lucky island child – used a large “T” bar that connected to a pin under the deck, and then cracked it. “When we would see they were getting ready,” Don recalls with a huge smile, “us children ran onto the bridge, because if you were fast enough, you got there first and could crank it, and it was great fun! It only took 3 to 4 cranks before you saw it move, so it was pretty quick. It usually took about 15 minutes to totally open, then you cranked it back in the opposite direction to close it.”
The Big Excuse!
AJ has many fond memories of the swing bridge: “When it was shut, we kids all fished off of it with cane poles. Because the bridge was so heavy, the school bus could not drive across it with children inside, but we were so smart – we always left one kid hiding in the back! After the bus went across, we would walk over the bridge, then get back on. Also, the swing bridge was ‘The Big Excuse’ for us all! When you went to the mainland to see a movie and came home late, you told the adults it was because the swing bridge was open, whether it was or not. The trouble was, everyone knew everybody on the island, so we couldn’t get away with anything!”
According to Paul’s document, the swing bridge’s end began in July 1975, when the Lee County Department of Transportation deemed it in such bad shape that a new bridge was necessary, eventually leading to the Matanzas Pass Bridge. As that neared completion in August 1979, Lee County determined the swing bridge was so awful, it was unsafe to open for boats and became permanently locked into position for road traffic only, with one vehicle at a time at five miles-per-hour, causing a huge backup. Shortly after this, with Matanzas Pass nearly complete, traffic at reduced speed shifted to the new bridge, despite crews still completing construction.
The swing bridge, however, had one last great day: “everyone loved it so much,” recalls AJ, “that we had a Good-bye party, complete with decorations and Christmas lights all over it, and everybody on the island saying, ‘So Long!’”
“Well, this is fabulous,” Russ exclaims! “While the bridge is long gone, you can see everyone still loves to talk about it, and now here we are, looking at such an important part of it that none of us have seen for a while.” “Steve, you brought us a treasure, as well as a lot of good memories,” said AJ. “We don’t have anything like this, so this is an exciting find. You are a good guy to contact us and to make all this effort.” “It might not get you into heaven,” added Russ with a big laugh, “but it will get you closer!”
This is His Legacy
While appreciative of the compliments, “give Paul all the credit,” said Steve. “I am just the messenger! I can’t tell you how happy I am to give these things to you, as I wanted to take them somewhere where people would appreciate them, and I can see by the reaction today this is the right place! Paul just knew I would do something good with it, as something with this historical significance shouldn’t be buried in someone’s backyard or be sold for scrap. The one thing that really drove me crazy is that when Paul passed on last year, the only items in his obituary were his name and dates, and he deserved so much more than that. It is appropriate we make this donation so close to the anniversary of his June 16 death, as this is in reality his legacy.”
Steve expressed his appreciation to Joe King of Kings Metal Polishing of Sarasota, who spent over an hour polishing the pivot bushing, especially the brass: “it was really dark, and now it shines! I said to him, ‘my gosh, Joe, this looks like gold!’ He thinks the brass cap may contain a mixture of some specialty metals.”
“Ohhh, the nostalgia,” hums AJ in conclusion: “To think we would open the swing bridge and play on it and meet our friends on it, and this makes you feel like you are returning to your childhood. This is a treasure, and I feel like we are looking at gold! This is a terrific addition to the historical society, is quite a tribute to Paul Henderson, and it speaks volumes to the character of Steve Anderson.” To see the span in action, Google Fort Myers Beach Swing Bridge and a 1966 film clip shows it opening and closing for the passage of a shrimp boat.
Leave it to Paul himself to sum up the story, in his own words written from September 2007: “Rest in Peace, old mighty swing bridge of Fort Myers Beach!”