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What is the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge?

Gareth McGrath
Cape Fear Memorial Bridge

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. (Photo by Paul Stephens of the StarNews.)

When it opened in the fall of 1969, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge became the iconic symbol of Wilmington.

Four decades and millions of vehicles later, the Port City bridge is still the city’s most recognized landmark.

But the green and increasingly rusty lady is no spring chicken, and it’s taking more than some occasional spit and polish from the N.C. Department of Transportation to keep the state’s tallest and only lift-span bridge shipshape.

Officials, for their part, are confident that they can keep the bridge open and safe for motorists for the foreseeable future – and they might have to.

About the only thing that’s rising with the proposed Cape Fear Skyway is its price tag, which is now pushing $1.1 billion.

Prior to the Memorial Bridge opening, access between Wilmington and Brunswick County was provided by a pair of two-lane, low-rise bridges – the first crossing the Northeast Cape Fear River just south of the current Isabel Holmes Bridge and the other the Cape Fear River.

Like the battle decades later to get Interstate 40 extended to the coast, officials and residents had to campaign hard for the new crossing.

The program for the Memorial Bridge’s Oct. 20 dedication ceremony proudly noted that the bridge’s $15 million cost was the “single largest money appropriation in the State of North Carolina in one place.”

But the griping wasn’t just about whether the state should build a new bridge.

“It’s kind of like things today,” said Bobby Greer, the long-serving New Hanover County commissioner and native Wilmingtonian. “Everyone had their own opinion of where it should go, what type of bridge it should be.”

One thing that didn’t appear to be controversial, however, was how the bridge was built.

Still stinging from the departure of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the region welcomed the jobs and the wages the transportation project brought. And nagging red tape wasn’t a problem back then.

Methods used to build the bridge and the approach roads, which would make environmentalists cringe today, included filling in wetlands and dredging a path for U.S. 74-76 through marshy and mucky Eagles Island.

Properties also were cleared on the Wilmington side of the river and streets widened to handle the additional traffic loads.

Since then the Memorial Bridge has become the region’s primary river crossing and appeared in dozens of movies and television shows.

But in recent years, as traffic has grown in lockstep with the region’s population, it’s become known for causing bottlenecks as well as offering great views of downtown Wilmington.

Since vessel traffic on the Cape Fear River has priority over bridge traffic and the ships are beholden to the tides, bridge openings can occur at the most inopportune times, sometimes backing up traffic at the height of rush hour.

Then there are the eye-popping backups caused when the bridge gets stuck in the raised position.

With ship traffic north of the state port shrinking, there are fewer bridge openings these days.

But that hasn’t reduced the DOT workload, especially as the bridge reaches middle age.

In 1985, the bridge received a fresh coat of paint. Then in 1996, the movable part of the bridge span received new steel decking.

Eleven years later, in 2007, the state replaced the outdated bridge control system and last year did some structural repairs to the lift span.

Next year the DOT plans to spend nearly $8 million updating the heating and air-conditioning system in the bridge’s control tower, working on the guide rollers that lift the movable span and replacing the roadway lighting system – work that will require the crossing to be completely shut down at night.

Allen Pope, head of the DOT’s Wilmington division, said that while talk about adding decorative lighting comes up now and again, the agency remains against any project that would add cost or additional maintenance headaches to the bridge’s upkeep.

The painting of the bridge is another task, and question mark, on the near horizon.

“The color is still up in the air,” Pope said. “But durability will be the key. We don’t want to paint it something that’s going to fade quickly, bleach or show spots right away.”

As she celebrates her 40th anniversary, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is no longer the biggest span over the river.

That title is now owned by the Dan Cameron Bridge, which carries Interstate 140 over the Northeast Cape Fear River north of Wilmington, And unlike the Memorial Bridge, that elevated concrete crossing doesn’t have any height or width restrictions on loads.

But the downtown bridge still carries more vehicles per day, 71,884 as of February 2008, than any other roadway in the region except for the U.S. 74-76 causeway on Eagles Island.

“It will take more preservation efforts to maintain it as we move forward,” Pope said. “But overall, she is doing very well to be going into her 40th year.”

Bridge dedication

According to the brochure for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge dedication ceremony on Oct. 20, 1969:

“This majestic structure … will henceforth serve to honor the memory of the heroic men and women of North Carolina who gave their lives in the service of the United States of America.”

— Ben Steelman

Bridge facts

Project started: December 1965

Opened to traffic: October 1969

Project cost (including approach roads): $15 million

Length: 3,033 feet

Height: 65 feet with span down; towers rise 160 feet above river.

Footings: 50 feet into river bed.

Steel used: 6,100 tons

Concrete: 43,000 tons, half underwater or in the ground.

Daily traffic: 71,884 vehicles (February 2008)

Sources: DOT, City of Wilmington

Note: This post originally appeared in the StarNews as a news story on Dec. 15, 2009. Below is a link to that story:

After 40 years, Cape Fear Memorial Bridge remains a vital access point

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