The old Seven Mile Bridge, right off the Overseas Highway in the Keys, hasn't been open to regular traffic since 1982. Now, part of the old bridge is getting a $38 million restoration.
Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad connected the Florida Keys to the mainland more than 100 years ago. And the most ambitious part of the plan was getting across the gap between the Middle and Lower Keys — seven miles.
The original Seven Mile Bridge was built from 1908 to 1910. The distance over the water was immense, given the technology of that time. And workers had to cope with South Florida's conditions and the climate, including several hurricanes.
"Still, to this day, you walk out there and you can't believe that people actually thought they could do this. Then you can't believe that they actually did do it," said Les Standiford, author of Last Train to Paradise. The book chronicles the construction of the railroad and then its end in 1935, when the Labor Day Hurricane smashed across the Upper Keys.
After 1935, the bridges and railroad right-of-way were sold to the state and the bridges were converted for highway use. Starting in the 1970s, they were replaced and the new Overseas Highway stretch of U.S. 1 opened in 1982.
Some of those old bridges are abandoned now. Others became fishing piers and paths for walking, biking and rollerskating, as part of the Overseas Heritage Trail state park, right next to the new bridges.
The two-mile stretch of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, from Marathon to Pigeon Key, was also a beautiful place to watch sunrise or sunset, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean.
"Most people have never seen anything like it," Standiford said.
Now the bridge is getting an upgrade. Crews are replacing some of the old steel beams, rusted out after decades of exposure to saltwater.
Pom Chakkaphak is the senior project engineer with WSP, overseeing the current work on the bridge. He said he thinks about Flagler's crews who built the original bridge "all the time" when he's out there.
"I wish I'd been down here with them," he said.
New beams are cut and bent on site. They're also working on the concrete piers that support the bridge. Those piers — and the girder that the railroad ran on top of — have held up better than the steel beams.
"That was one of the most surprising aspects of this job," said Jordan Salinger, WSP's contract support specialist on the Keys bridge project, "the solidness of the girder and the concrete piers."
"When we come in, of course our main objective is to maintain the original," Chakkaphak said.
Besides the sunsets, and the walking and bike path, the bridge is also the only way to get to Pigeon Key by car. For now, visitors and students at the marine science center can only get there by boat.
The restoration comes after years of lobbying by locals who wanted to preserve access to Pigeon Key and keep the span as a safe recreational space.
Bernard Spinrad is president of Friends of Old Seven. He has an ambitious vision for the bridge's next life, especially in combination with the public park on Knight's Key, right at the old bridge's abutment to land.
"The bridge can be transformed into a mini-Highline," Spinrad said.
The Highline is an old elevated railroad that runs through part of Manhattan. In the last decade, it's been transformed into a hugely popular public park.
While the Highline gives an aerial view of the urban cityscape, the old bridge will give people access to subtropical South Florida, Spinrad said.
"The fact that you can go there and walk the full two miles and back — maybe people just walk a quarter of a mile. People walking on that bridge can see manta rays, dolphins, all kinds of marine life. Right from there," he said.
And Standiford said it's well worth the $38 million to restore the bridge — because of what it represents.
"It speaks to the realization that the impossible can be achieved," he said. "That there is virtually nothing that can be imagined that cannot be ultimately accomplished."
The bridge is set to open to the public again in 2021.