Janie Gildart: Several days ago, the Luhrs (our Airstream friends) packed up from Bay Bayou RV Resort to continue their travel odyssey. But before leaving the Tampa area, they invited us to spend one last nostalgic evening with them as they camped at the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, which parallels the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Born from tragedy, the bridge is an engineering feat as well as a structural beauty. The original two-lane bridge was built in 1954 and became a four-lane bridge in 1969.
Disaster struck in 1980 when the bridge was rammed by a freighter (the “Summit Venture”) during a violent storm. 1,200 feet of the south span of the bridge dropped into Tampa Bay, along with a bus and several cars. Thirty-five people died.
Re-building was obviously a priority, as a solid bridge was necessary to span Tampa Bay, connecting St. Petersburg and Palmetto. The new bridge was completed in 1987, relieving the northbound portion of the old bridge from carrying all the traffic, as it had done following the accident.
Now you can behold the world’s longest cable-stayed concrete bridge at over 29,000 feet (5.5 miles in length), with the longest span of 1,200 feet rising to 193 feet above the water. The 21 steel cables supporting the roadway are painted yellow-gold (thus “Sunshine Skyway”) and are lit at night to continue the golden theme.
Unfortunately, the new bridge also has a tragic attraction. As with many other bridges and high places, the top of this bridge draws those attempting suicide and the sad statistics continue to rise. So much so that authorities are trying to implement the use of suicide-prevention techniques. Enough sad news…
One of the better outcomes of the new construction is that the engineers left the approaches of the old bridge at either end to be used as two, several-mile-long fishing piers; these are under the auspices of the Florida State Parks and are known as the North and South Piers, running nearly parallel to the new bridge.
You can pay $3.00 for an hour’s worth of sightseeing, or stay 24 hours for a bit more money. Those with campers are welcome to camp on the piers and this is what the Luhrs’ plan was; this is “the happening place to be.”
Here, on the south pier, fishing is apparently good (no license needed) and the bird life is plentiful. While we didn’t see any huge fish reeled in, we did see brown pelicans, egrets, terns and blue herons all seemed to be catching more than the humans with poles. A bait shop sits in the middle of the several mile-long pier and Nancy, the attendant, showed us various live baits and weights that usually work.
Many families were settled in for the weekend with all members throwing at least one line into the bay and everyone having a great time. Some children showed us the silver flashes of bait fish jumping in the dark waters.
As evening closed in and the pink sky grew black, we saw a manta ray swim by, followed by what appeared to be a huge crab migration. Where they were going and what kind of crabs they were remains a mystery.
After a fun, delicious supper we left the Luhrs and the south pier and now it was very dark. The tiny silver fish were still jumping, the crabs were still moving on, and the graceful bridge was lit brightly, pointing to the risen full moon.
It was a beautiful evening in a central Florida “happening place.”