Florida East Coast Railroad Bridge – New River, Fort Lauderdale

For information about the tragic death of Lynn senior Kyle Conrad, please see the Sun-Sentinel article.

The Florida East Coast Railroad Bridge in downtown Fort Lauderdale
The Florida East Coast Railroad Bridge in downtown Fort Lauderdale

Just west, downriver of the Andrews Avenue bridge is the Railroad bridge. This New River icon is a single span that crosses from the North to South banks. On the southeast side is Apex Marine, the old Allied yard. On the southwest side is old Shirttail Charlie’s restaurant. The north side is Riverwalk and the historic district of Fort Lauderdale. Three railroad bridges have spanned here – the current one since 1978. It is a wacky, unpredictable impediment to boaters with virtually no clearance when seated down. The Florida East Coast railroad passes on the rails.

Merryln Rathburn explain how the current railroad route was decided on. It takes a jog to the west through downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Flagler was following the Atlantic coastal ridge. It makes sense for a railway. But, if they followed the Atlantic coastal ridge it would have taken them through Collie’s hammock. And Mary Brickel owned the plat and planned to develop a luxury neighborhood. She said I don’t think so. She was a powerful woman. Good for her. So if you look, the railroad runs pretty far east and then gradually at about sunrise veers westward and crosses the new river downtown. We owe this to Mary Brickel.

They would have liked to gone across at near the mouth of the New River through Collie’s Hammock, but because of Mary Brickel the route is through downtown. According to historian Bob Hathaway, the bridge was first installed in 1895. It carried one rail over the river.

Another bridge was installed in 1925, again a single track. The new bridge leaf moved from the south to the north side of the river. Seth Branson the FEC historian says, “Most interesting was it always was a single rail bridge.” During these periods, the trains carried loads of passengers and freight. The passenger station was on the north side of the New River crossing. Seth says, “The passenger trains were long. Passengers would have to walk from the end of the train to the station. Southbound trains were mostly arrivals coming from Buffalo, Chicago, and other places up north. Northbound trains were departures. The passengers arriving would have to walk southward to the station. The passengers departing would have to walk a good way towards the New River to get on their passenger car.” Around 1954-1955, they moved the station to the south side of the New River at around SE 12th Street.

Sometime during this period the FEC modified the incoming and outgoing tracks to have two rails. At the bridge, these rails would merge and split going over the single track. This lead to more closings and a boating bottleneck, so in 1978, they put in a new 2 rail line bridge. The trains became strictly freight loads.

Merryln Rathburn explains the current debate about running commuter trains along the railroad. “The problem has always been the boat traffic. They’d like to put commuter traffic on the railroad. And a commuter train would be great on the railroad. It runs through downtown where everyone wants to go. Now say about 17, 18 loads go across a day. In a peak economy that would go up to say 25 loads. Now if you add commuters you’re talking about 50 loads a day. We can’t handle that.” The river would be blocked constantly to boaters. Instead, officials are thinking of building a separate commuter bridge next to the railroad. “So a thought is to build a high rise line for commuters in addition to the current line. Either the high rise line would be fixed or have a small opening for the tallest masts. The other option is a tunnel. The prohibitory thing is the cost with a tunnel.” At the mention of a fixed bridge boaters go defensive. Tom a local yacht broker reacts, “They’re not going to put a fixed bridge there!” in an aggressive and strong voice. A fixed bridge would crush much of Fort Lauderdale’s boating industry.

Seth Bransom says, “It is all preliminary discussion at the moment. We are not building a tunnel. The choices are either to build a new bridge of 3, 4 tracks or build a separate bridge. I am not an engineer. My job is the company historian.”

Gator Bridge
Jo Ann Medalie works with the Centennial Celebration Committee headed by Clay Shaw. This committee is planning to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the City of Fort Lauderdale which was founded in 1911. In 2011, they are setting up displays throughout the city. For instance, they plan to light up the underside of the 17th Street causeway with different color lights. Another idea is the “Gator Bridge.” Here is their YouTube Video to the right.

In 1990, Jo Ann had a friend named Susyn Stecchi at the city of Fort Lauderdale. Susyn used to eat lunch on Riverwalk. Jo Ann says, “And Susyn would come back and say ‘when I look at that bridge all I can think of is a gator – a big, green gator.'” They approached various groups including the University of Florida but did not get anywhere. The technology was not quite there at the time either.

Now, it would be easy. They are in deep deliberation with the FEC and city. The biggest obstacle is the city deciding if the Gator bridge is a fun idea or a unfavorable one. The FEC according to Susyn, “Didn’t close the door say your crazy.” But they have concerns about accessing welds 4 times a year on the bridge for maintenance. The Centennial Committee is working on putting together a plan of scaffolding bolted on instead of a vinyl coating. The teeth could be as simple as orange traffic cones. Eyeballs go on the railroad seating.

Feb 16th is a day to decide to go forward with the plans. The bridge would be gatorized for 1-3 years starting around December 2010 Winterfest. It would be visible at night.

On the Water
Two people are aboard each train: the conductor and operator. The engineer blows the whistle and rings the bells. The conductor controls the speed and logs paperwork. They both keep their eyes out for people doing stupid, dangerous things like dodging gates.

The other day I was on seatrial/survey when I heard on VHF that the railroad bridge was down. As typical this stimulated a wave of chatter on the radio. Somebody wryly noted, “The railroad bridge is down…and people are walking over it.” A panicked boater asked Andrews to open. The tender confusedly responded, “I’m up. Do you mean the railroad bridge?”

On another day, Kevin a local captain and yacht broker and I were moving a boat upriver. I read the time off the Railroad bridge clock, “Oh no we’re going to miss the 17th street bridge. It’s 4:39” (17th locks down from 4:30-6:30 for rush hour). But after checking my cell phone I realized the railroad bridge doesn’t adjust for daylight savings. At 3:39pm, we were running in perfect time for the 4:00 opening.

These days 7-8 trains run each direction in day. They run 24 hours a day. Kevin Bray, a local yacht broker, mentions that “usually their is one in the afternoon at around 4pm.” Seth says, “Train number 101 leaves from Hialeah every day at 8:30pm.” When the economy improves the FEC hopes to hit 12 trains each directions to add up to 24 a day.

The bridge has a sensor. If a boat is under it while the bridge closes, the bridge will stop and go back up. While down, the marquee says the time until the bridge comes/leaves.

Other Local Railroad Bridges

  • CSX/State owned beyond I-95
  • Old Griffin (Dania Cut off)
  • Tarpon Bend (FEC south cont)

2 Replies to “Florida East Coast Railroad Bridge – New River, Fort Lauderdale”

  1. NO WAY WILL WE TOLERATE EVEN A PROPOSAL FOR A NEW FIXED BRIDGE OVER THE NEW RIVER!!! It will ruin the picturesque area around the historic buildings on the north side of the river; lower property values as it will destroy view; increase noise from an already high decibel level each time a train crosses; and of course hamper boat traffic – WHAT A STUPID IDEA!!!!

  2. Actually, you need to get your info straight.  I wouldnt propose a fixed bridge.  However as an engineer whom has gone over bridges thousands of times, fixed bridges are BY FAR less noisy than movable bridges. 

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