The Historic Cooper River Bridges:

The Grace, The Pearman, and The Ravenel

Left Photo: From Patriots Point, the Sun sets over the Grace and Pearman Bridges.  Photo taken by Christopher Lawson.

For decades, two massive steel cantilever bridges rose over the Cooper River, Drum Island, and Town Creek.  The Grace Memorial, opened in 1929, and the Pearman Memorial, opened in 1966, were part of the fabric of Charleston until the last day they carried traffic on July 16, 2005.  The new Ravenel Bridge - a massive cable stayed span - now carries the tradition of the two that came before it. 

The Grace Memorial Bridge was the first to span the Cooper River.  Built at a cost of $6 million, construction began on the 2.71 mile bridge in March 1928.  Seventeen months later, the bridge opened - in grand celebration - to traffic on August 8, 1929. (1)  The force behind the construction of the then named Cooper River Bridge was John P. Grace, a former Charleston mayor who led the Cooper River Bridge Company.  Because of his efforts, years later the Cooper River Bridge would be renamed in his honor.  The Grace originally was operated as a toll bridge until the South Carolina purchased the bridge in 1945 and removed the tolls one year later.  (2)

Earlier in 1946 on February 24, a family tragedy would haunt the bridge.  That afternoon a freighter, the Nicaragua Victory, would plow through the bridge on the Mount Pleasant side causing 240 feet of the bridge deck and roadway to collapse.  An Oldsmobile carrying Bill Lawson, his wife, mother, and two young children died when the car fell into the river.  The vehicle was recovered one month later with all five bodies still inside. (3)

Damage, emergency repairs, and higher traffic volumes would create the need for a second span.   The Pearman Memorial - dedicated after former highway commissioner Silas N. Pearman - would open on April 26, 1966 after nearly three years of construction. (1)  The new span would be a wider and more modern structure.  It would carry three lanes of northbound traffic over the Cooper, with one of the lanes being reversible to handle southbound traffic. 

In 1979, an eight ton weight limit would be placed on the aging Grace Memorial.  Years later, because of the weight limit, narrow ten foot lanes without shoulders, steep grades, and deteriorating condition of the bridge, the Grace would be declared structurally obsolete.  The weight limit would later be reduced to five tons and the third lane of the Pearman Memorial would be permanently reversed to handle commercial traffic heading south into Charleston.

With these problems - along with low shipping clearances blocking modern freighters access to the Port of Charleston - the need for a replacement structure increasingly grew.  For two decades, the state and the cities of Charleston and Mount Pleasant would battle over funding and design of the bridge.  Finally in the mid-1990s, Arthur Ravenel spearheaded a campaign that resulted in the combination of federal, state and Charleston County funding to build the $632 million bridge. (4)

The Ravenel Bridge is colossal cable stayed system, whose main span stretches for 1,546 feet.  The entire bridge system runs for 3.5 miles.  The two diamond shaped cable towers rise a total of 575 feet above the water and can be seen as far as Summerville. (5)   The bridge deck ascends 186 feet over the Cooper River allowing clearance for the most modern of ocean freighters to access the Port of Charleston.  The bridge carries eight 12' lanes of traffic, in addition to 4' outside and inside shoulders.  There is also a 12 foot wide pedestrian and bicycle lane on the south side of the bridge.

The glorious Ravenel opened to a week's long fanfare and celebration in July of 2005.  The bridge, which has become a symbol of pride to the City of Charleston, officially opened to traffic on July 16, 2005.

Left Image: From Patriots Point, the Sun sets over the Grace and Pearman Memorial Bridges.  In the foreground sits the USS Yorktown.  Photo Taken by Christopher Lawson

Right Image: A look at both the Grace (left) and Pearman (right)  Memorial Bridges.  Photo taken by Christopher Lawson.

Left Image: Heading southbound on the narrow Grace Memorial Bridge.  Photo taken by Adam Prince, October 2000.

Right Image: The travel lanes on the Grace Memorial were only ten feet wide with no shoulders.  Photo taken by Adam Prince, October 2000.

Left Image: Driving through one of the main through cantilever spans of the Grace Memorial Bridge.  Photo taken by Adam Prince, October 2000.

Right Image: Approaching the Grace Memorial Bridge from Mt. Pleasant.  Construction on the Ravenel Bridge is well underway.  Photo taken by Adam Froehlig, May 2003.

Left Image: Detail of the cantilever truss work on the Grace Memorial span.  Photo taken by Adam Froehlig, May 2003.

Right Image: The Ravenel Bridge would cross over both the Grace and Pearman Memorial Bridges.  On the left corner of the photo, a commercial truck heads south towards Charleston on the Pearman Bridge.  Photo taken by Adam Froehlig, May 2003.

Left Image: Take a look at the bridge piers of the Grace, Pearman, and finally the under construction piers for the Ravenel.  Three different eras of construction.  Photo taken by Adam Froehlig, May 2003.

Right Image: A close look at the construction of a Ravenel pier as viewed from the Grace Memorial Bridge.  Photo taken by Adam Froehlig, May 2003.

Left Image: The Ravenel Bridge and cable towers stand tall over the Cooper River and the slowly dismantled Grace and Pearman Bridges.  Photo taken by Billy Riddle, March 2006.

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    Sources & Links:

  • (1) SC Department of Transportation. "Cooper River Bridge Replacement - History." Cooper River Bridge Site. (September 2, 2006)
  • (2) "Bridging It - Step by Step." The Post-Courier.
  • (3) Miller, Katie Avon. "Ghosts." The Post-Courier.
  • (4) Jonsson, Patrick and Miller, Mike. "A modern bridge to the historic south." The Christian Science Monitor 21 Jul. 2005.
  • (5) Denton, James. "The Cooper River." Sandlapper 48. (September 4, 2006) 
  • Cooper River Bridge ---SCDOT
  • The Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge --- C. Frank Starmer
  • Demolition of the Grace and Pearman Memorial Bridges ---C. Frank Starmer
  • Charleston Bridge Photos ---John Chilton
  • Cooper River Bridges @ ---Alex Nitzman



    Page Created: September 4, 2006
    Last Updated: September 4, 2006

    © 2006 Adam Prince

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