Fort Lauderdale’s 17th Street bridge had lowly beginnings

This article was featured in the February edition of the Waterfront News.

Current Causeway

In 1925 a south side causeway was built in an area slightly north of the current 17th Street bridge in Fort Lauderdale. According to Merrilyn Rathburn, research director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, developers planned to connect the bridge but never did. “They built just the spans, not the approach ramps to the bridge. The bridge was just out there in the Intracoastal unattached to land,” she said. Then the 1926 hurricane blew through and the economy collapsed. The hurricane badly damaged the bridge, leaving mere remnants of construction out in the middle of the Intracoastal — a navigational hazard. “And, it stayed like that for many years,” Merrilyn explained. “A colorful aspect of Fort Lauderdale history. A real bridge to no where.”

First Completed Bridge
In the early 1950s as traffic increased on Las Olas Boulevard, the City of Fort Lauderdale started planning a south side bridge. Though Las Olas merchants worried about the competition the bridge might bring, it was generally agreed that growth was dependent on having access to the southern end of the city. The Commodore Brook Memorial Causeway, named for a city founder, opened a month ahead of schedule in 1956. The completed bridge was the finale of a long-held ambition for the city, according to Fort Lauderdale Daily News reporter Douglas McQuarrie. “Today’s monumental project, fully completed to withstand any hurricane is, in retrospect, a tribute to the foresight of the developers in the mid 1920s before the land boom bubble burst,” he wrote in his column on Friday, Feb. 24, 1956. City officials wondered if the 28-foot clearance would be enough. They worried about too many openings stopping traffic. State law required fishing trawlers to have outriggers on hinges to alleviate the worry. The concerns turned out to be correct but boaters and motorists would manage to endure frequent openings for the next 42 years.

Current Bridge
In the 1980s and ‘90s land and waterway traffic often bottlenecked requiring bridge openings on every half and whole hour. The situation became intolerable. “We don’t generally raise bridges,” said Brian O’Donoghue, assistant engineer for bridge Inspection at the state Department of Transportation in Fort Lauderdale Office. But the 17th street bridge was a special case. In 1995 after 10 years of debate, three dozen local leaders chose a contemporary, 55-foot clearance drawbridge. Many lambasted the design as bulky. Others claimed the keeled support structure would become a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco. Completed in 2002, her official name is the Clay E Shaw Memorial, bridge after the congressman who worked hard to fund the project. But it’s known locally as the 17th Street bridge. “I’m biased — I pass over twice a day. But the new bridge has really helped. It opens on the same half and hour as the old bridge but if no boats are waiting, it doesn’t open.” The DOT estimates she will last over 60 years. So far, these three bridges span the history of the 17th Street causeway.

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