The Old Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge and Museum in Sunset Beach, NC

The old Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge and bridge tender's house

The old Sunset Beach Pontoon Bridge and bridge tender’s house

A one-lane, wooden bridge that rose and fell with the tide and floated on pontoons was the only way to travel between the mainland and the island of Sunset Beach, NC up until 2010 when a permanent bridge was opened.  It was the last one of its kind operating along the East Coast and has been preserved by the Old Bridge Preservation Society.  You can now visit the bridge and its tender house museum at 109 Shoreline Dr. West in Sunset Beach.

It is about a 50 minute trip from the Myrtle Beach area, and upon arriving Kelly, my daughter, Hannah, and I noticed a portion of a bridge with a small white house on top of it nestled next to, and partly underneath, the new permanent Mannon C. Gore Bridge. We were greeted by a friendly volunteer and her husband, both career-educators.  The woman invited us to walk onto the bridge, pointing out the visible tire tracks on the wooden bridge planks where cars rolled across to their homes or vacation destination.  She said they called this bridge “the heartbeat of Sunset Beach” because of the pounding sound of the car tires over the wooden planks. We noticed angular notches cut into the railings which allowed the center of the bridge to rise and fall with the tide, creating a road that was only flat during low tide.  She led us into the small white house and explained that it was the bridge tender’s house where a man – a bridge tender – stayed 24/7 in order to operate the bridge. The volunteers said the house hadn’t changed much since it was in operation and it boasted windows on all sides, held a desk and two chairs, and charts and notices were taped to the wall.  They showed us the last log book used by the bridge tender who would write down the names of all the boats that passed the Sunset Beach bridge.  This log was used to recreate the course of a boat if one went missing. A television played a movie that documented the last few days of the bridge in operation.

The rise of the pontoon bridge, permanently marked at half-tide

The rise of the pontoon bridge, permanently marked at half-tide

The volunteers showed us a picture album of the bridge being relocated and told numerous stories. The woman let Hannah push a button on the “Christmas Tree board” (because it had red and green buttons) which was a control panel and we heard the loud whine of a siren.  This was the signal to let people know the bridge was going to open. The bridge opened every hour on the hour for ten minutes. A diesel engine below the bridge tender’s house would wind and unwind a cable attached to a pylon to pull the bridge open and closed. Sometimes boats would try to zip past the bridge while it was closing for boat traffic, unaware of the use of the cable, and they would run into the cable, snapping it.  We were told the bridge broke down often, and this was one of the causes.  They told us a story about a time when a father and his son were on the island side for a fundraiser and drove over the bridge to the mainland to get hot dog buns for their event. The bridge “broke” and they could not get back.  They purchased a small inflatable raft from the local beach and tackle shop (no longer in operation), blew it up, and rowed back to the island in time for the hot dogs to be served in buns that afternoon!

Sign from the road

Sign from the road – part of the new bridge is visible behind it

The museum is also home to artifacts from Civil War era ships including broken whiskey bottles, ballast from a ship, a cannon ball, and odds and ends like forks and spoons.

For hours of operation (they vary with the season) visit the Old Bridge Preservation Society website.

For more history and pictures of the operation of the bridge, click here.

Cost: Free. Donations accepted.

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