The Sunset Beach Swing Bridge is a 500-foot-long floating swing bridge that crosses the Intracoastal Waterway. The one-lane wood and steel structure has long been a symbol for island life because travelers must slow down and wait to cross the bridge. If you are not sitting at the traffic light on the mainland waiting for cars to cross over from the island, you might be waiting at a red light on the island waiting for those from the mainland to pass. At the top of each hour from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. each day, both lights turn red. The bridge then opens and swings to the side using a system of pulleys and cables. Drivers have no option but to wait it out and enjoy the incredible views.
Surprisingly, this is one busy little bridge. The island of Sunset Beach is home to no more than 100 permanent residents, but with 1,200 family cottages and rental properties, that number grows significantly during the summer and holidays. Add to that number the delivery vehicles, island employees, and tourists that visit the area, and the NCDOT estimates that the bridge is used by nearly 7,000 vehicles daily.
Built in 1961, it is possibly the only bridge of its kind that remains in operation on the east coast. Unique too, because it is a pontoon barge with a house on top. The wooden road built over the pontoons rises and falls with the tide. When the tide is high, cars travel a slight incline over the middle of the bridge. When the tide is out, there is a small valley in the middle. All the while, the bridge operator maintains a watchful eye from the little white house. When a commercial boat approaches, it may signal the operator who then opens the bridge just for that boat.
Brunswick County is one of the fastest growing areas in the state and Sunset Beach is now more than just an island. Sprawling nearly three miles inland, the town includes shopping plazas, medical offices, banks, golf resorts, restaurants, and family attractions. Retirees have relocated to the area by the thousands each year, drawn to attractions of coastal living. Sadly, this growth has made the swing bridge to the island obsolete. In fact, the antique structure is rated for a mere 24,000 pounds at a time, but the town's fire trucks each weigh much more than that and are all located on the mainland.
Since the late 1970s, the NCDOT has recommended replacing the old span. It was met with defiance from the locals who fought to keep their little piece of paradise as it is. Development has finally won out. After nearly 30 years of planning and controversy, the bridge is set to be replaced by a 65-foot-high arch bridge. The two-lane bridge is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.
"It is the end of an era for me," said one native North Carolinian who grew up with the old Sunset Beach Bridge. He brought his own sons to see it once again before the new span crosses overhead. "I hate to see it go, but I can understand the need for progress." Quite possibly the bridge won't be destroyed entirely. A portion of the structure may be retained as a fishing pier – a fitting retirement for a very well loved piece of North Carolina history.