July 22, 1982
Seven Mile Bridge celebration, when party-goers ate stone crabs and the Key Lime Pie Band played on the hump to commemorate the completion of the $175 million state-federal project that constructed or widened 37 of the Overseas Highway’s 43 bridges.
So scary that at least 10 times frightened tourists knocked on the door of the Marathon substation begging deputies to drive them across the Seven Mile Bridge. Some were willing to pay $10, which at the time was a half-day’s pay for deputies.
A $63 million freshwater pipeline, which upgraded the one built in the early 1940s by the Navy, was also completed in conjunction with the bridges project, to fix problems with low pressure and poor supply.
Those two projects were the major boost the island chain needed during its new quest to become a tourist destination.
At the time, the Keys were desperate to replace the economic loss caused in big part by the Navy leaving Key West in the 1970s. The departure of thousands of sailors turned the once-thriving main drag of the southernmost city into a boarded-up ghost town. “You could shoot a cannon down Duval Street and not hit anybody,” said Dennis Wardlow, then mayor of Key West. “We saw tourism as the way to turn things around.”
But something had to be done about the water situation.
It was kind of miserable in the late ’70s and early ’80s for those living on the second story because there wasn’t much water pressure up there. The upgrading of the fresh-water pipeline enabled tourists as well as residents to have the modern convenience of a good shower and the ability to flush toilets even from the sixth floor of the La Concha hotel.
And for tourism to flourish, something also had to be done about the scary bridges, which were constructed in the 1900s for Henry Flagler’s railway. The bridges were never intended for use by 18-wheelers and motor homes. Most of the bridges’ travel lanes were only 10 feet wide, with virtually no shoulder and only old railway tracks serving as guard rails to protect vehicles from plunging into the Atlantic Ocean on one side or the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
Virginia Panico, now executive director of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, remembers her instructions for driving the family’s Winnebago over the old bridges: “Take the right front tire and keep it against the cement. Bring in the mirrors. And if a big truck is coming, you might click. But don’t be nervous.” Gus Pego, a director of operations for the state’s Department of Transportation, said many drivers “got white knuckles from holding the steering wheels so tight.”
For the Keys’ longest bridges, the project used technology from a French engineer who had designed a fast and inexpensive way to build bridges bombed during World War II. The Seven Mile Bridge was built with 485-ton concrete segments cast in Tampa and barged to the Keys, where they were lifted into place with a crane. The segments were placed onto 286 pilings and held together with cables. “It’s kind of like a slinky,” Pego said. Built with 12-foot travel lanes and six-foot shoulders, the structure became the longest concrete box-girder bridge in the world and was featured on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels.
The new bridges cut an hour off the time it took to travel the 106.5-mile stretch from Key Largo to Key West. They also made the trip safer, although just 22 months after the Seven Mile Bridge opened, Jon Fascell died on it during a head-on collision. He was the only son of the late U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, a major supporter of the project.
The new bridges not only opened the Keys to people who had feared the drive, but also became a tourist lure itself. In 2001, the Overseas Highway became a state recognized “Scenic Highway.”