For just $1.75 you can get the fright of your life! But know that this is for real. It’s not an amusement park or some prank a friend might pull off. We’re talking about the scariest bridge in Florida.
Certainly, no competition designates the most terrifying bridge. But many folks who have taken the 4.14-mile trip across this span say it is indeed not for the faint of heart. There are even rumors that it’s haunted.
An Engineering Marvel
The toll to cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which will take you across Tampa Bay, can be paid with a small handful of quarters. For that meager amount, you will traverse an engineering marvel, what was not long ago considered the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world.
A cable-stayed bridge is easily recognized by its array of giant cables that are anchored to towers suspending the road below. In the case of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the cables are a golden yellow that sparkles in the sun of a Florida afternoon.
At its apex of 430 feet above the bay, you’ll get some amazing views. And at night the bridge is even more photo-worthy. When its nearly 2000 LED lights are working, it’s illuminated by a variety of hues that cover the giant columns.
So why are so many travelers spooked by this imposing and colorful bridge? It’s not even the longest bridge in Florida, that honor goes to the Seven Mile Bridge in Key West. If traffic is moving, you can cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in under ten minutes.
Perhaps it’s the history of the Sunshine Skyway that makes so many motorists cringe when taking the short ride across it.
The Original Skyway Bridge
September 6, 1954, was the opening day of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge connecting St. Petersburg to Terra Ceia. The St. Petersburg Times printed a special edition, with a banner headline that read: “At Long Last, Hands Across the Bay.”
The Florida governor at the time called the bridge “a mighty and majestic monument to the cooperative spirit of man.” Dignitaries, politicians, and other celebrities made the first crossing, accompanied by planes and helicopters flying overhead. Hundreds of boats gathered in Tampa Bay for the event. By 9:30 that morning over 500 cars had lined up to cross as well. A reporter with the Times called it a “once in a lifetime” experience. Others said it was like going up a roller coaster with a “feeling of dread.”
That first day it was estimated that over 50,000 people had experienced either the thrill or scare of a lifetime by making the trip.
The original bridge had just one span and two lanes. In 1971 a second span was added for southbound motorists.
From Triumph to Tragedy
Twenty-five years, eight months, and three days after those glorious opening ceremonies, however, tragedy struck the Skyway.
In the early morning hours of May 9, 1980, sudden strong winds and a blinding storm caused the freighter Summit Venture to collide with two of its supporting columns. The Summit’s captain had dropped anchor and tried putting the ship in reverse, but it was useless.
That collision caused a 1,200-foot section of the newer southbound span to fall into the churning waters of Tampa Bay. Along with it went a truck, six cars, and a Greyhound bus. In all, 35 occupants of those vehicles died.
For those who frequently crossed the bridge, it seemed unreal.
Many people subsequently wrote accounts of their memories of the bridge. Some recalled how terrifying they found the drive, and how, while crossing the still-standing northbound span and seeing a whole section missing, their worst fears had been realized.
Only one person survived the plunge.
Wesley MacIntire, a resident who was using the bridge that fateful day on his way to work was plucked out of Tampa Bay by crew members from the Summit Venture. At the time he recalled, “I hit my brakes, but I guess the truck wasn’t even on the bridge anymore. I was in the air…”
The Highest Point in Tampa Bay
Construction on a replacement span began in 1983 and was completed in 1987. But for seven years the still-standing northbound span was back to being used as a two-lane crossing. The damaged section became an eerie reminder of that tragic day for anyone using the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Several years after the new bridge became operational, the center span of the old bridge was demolished. A significant portion remains that was converted into the world’s longest fishing pier, known as the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.
The debris left from the wreckage, along with steel and concrete from the middle span of the old bridge, was sunk into the bay to form an artificial reef.
Floridians who were in the area at the time of the tragedy say you can’t look at the new bridge without recalling that awful day in 1980. “It was a terrible sight,” one told the local press. “I remember where I was when I heard the news.”
Another commented that driving over it made one feel “like you were going into the sky.”
But the bridge remains a landmark in otherwise flat environs. “That bridge is our mountain,” said local historian Will Michaels. Adding, it’s the “highest point in the whole area here.”
An Earlier Tragedy: The USCGC Blackthorn
But the bridge collapse, as it turned out, had an ominous harbinger in an event that occurred at almost the same location just a few months prior.
On January 28, 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn, collided with the tanker Capricorn in Tampa Bay. In the collision, the Capricorn’s anchor became lodged in the Blackthorn’s hull, capsizing the cutter. The Coast Guard vessel sunk to the bottom of the bay soon after.
Twenty-three Coast Guard crew members lost their lives that day, all within a stone’s throw of the doomed Skyway Bridge.
The Ghosts of Tampa Bay
Many area residents claim that paranormal activity is common, both on the bridge and in and around Tampa Bay.
Eerie sightings have been reported by motorists when crossing the bridge. Some apparitions are so vivid that they have caused motorists to stop their cars. One such ghostly image, reported to Tampa news outlets, is of a distressed “hitchhiking woman” standing on one of the lanes of the bridge. She seems so real that drivers tell of stopping to pick her up, only to have her suddenly vanish.
The most common sightings claimed by bridge travelers are of a phantom Greyhound bus. People have reported seeing faces in windows and passengers in wet clothing.
Locals on both sides of the bridge have seen their share of spirit sightings as well.
In St. Petersburg, you can visit the haunted Vinoy Renaissance Hotel. Ghostly images reportedly seen there include the “lady in white,” glowing images, and unexplained noises.
Terra Cia, on the southern shore of Tampa Bay, is home to a sacred Native American burial ground known as Madira Bickel Mound — a protected archaeological site, where visitors have reported feeling chills and the sensation of being followed.
While reports of ghosts, such as the bridge hitchhiker, are often dismissed as being ridiculous, those claiming to have had such encounters stand by their stories.
Ghosts or not, the history of the most frightening bridge in Florida is enough to give one pause after paying their toll and starting the journey to the heights above Tampa Bay.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Bilanol/Shutterstock.com
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