The Cooper River bridges were parallel bridges connecting Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The elder of the two spans, the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge, was built in 1929. The Silas N. Pearman Bridge was constructed in 1966.
The Grace Memorial Bridge was known fondly – and also somewhat fearfully – by locals as the “Old Bridge.” Its two narrow lanes (10 feet each with no curbs or median) opened for traffic on August 8, 1929 as a toll bridge costing 50 cents per trip, with 15 cents extra for each additional passenger. The toll was used to pay for the bridge’s $6 million price tag; it was owned and operated by a private company named Cooper River Bridge, Inc. The president of this company, Charleston native John P. Grace, later served as its namesake. Grace also served as Charleston’s 51st mayor, completing two, nonconsecutive terms from 1911 to 1915 and 1919 to 1923.
The bridge took 17 months to build. Prior to 1929, people traveling between Charleston and Mount Pleasant did so by private boat or ferry. Like the Ravenel Bridge today, the Grace Bridge actually crossed two bodies of water – the Cooper River and Town Creek. In all, it measured 2.71 miles and it stood 250 feet tall – 15 feet higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time of its construction, it was the largest bridge of its kind in the world.
27 years later, on a stormy afternoon in February 1946, a 10,000-ton freighter named Nicaragua Victory rammed into the bridge after dragging anchor during a winter storm. A 240-foot section of concrete and metal collapsed, causing Elmer Lawson and his family to fall into the water below. Elmer, his wife Evelyn, his mother Rose, and his young children, Robert and Diane, all perished in the cold water.
For two months, the bridge was impassable, and travelers were forced to take an 80-mile detour through Berkeley County. Ferries also resumed service. In April, a Bailey span was erected, closing the gap with a single, temporary lane. Tenders stood on either side of the bridge to direct traffic, but due to a 12,000-ton weight limit, trucks and buses had to continue using the long detour.
The bridge was repaired by June of that year. Because the Nicaragua Victory had been under contract with the United States government, federal taxpayers footed the $300,000 repair bill. The State of South Carolina then took ownership of the bridge, and a ceremony was held to celebrate the end the toll.
As time passed and traffic grew heavier, the need for a second bridge became apparent. In 1966, a three-lane twin of the Grace Memorial Bridge opened, dedicated in honor of then Highway Commissioner, Silas N. Pearman. Most people, of course, knew it simply as the “New Bridge.”
By the 1990s, however, both of these bridges had become unsafe. In fact, the Grace Memorial Bridge had been deemed structurally obsolete by 1979, and the Pearman Bridge struggled to handle the heavy traffic between Charleston and Mount Pleasant. Local politician Arthur Ravenel spearheaded the campaign for a new bridge, and it was subsequently named in his honor.
The Ravenel Bridge opened during a week-long celebration in July 2005. An eight-lane, cable-stayed bridge with two diamond shaped towers, it allows clearance for modern ocean freighters to access the Port of Charleston. Both of the earlier Cooper River Bridges were demolished by dynamite in 2007, their signature silhouettes no longer stretching across the sky.
Reflections on the Cooper River Bridges
When the Grace Memorial Bridge opened in 1929, Charlestonians celebrated for three days! Chuck Boyd of Charleston contributed this picture of his grandmother posing in front of the Grace Memorial Bridge in 1928. He writes, “My grandmother, Alyce May Boyd, is shown primly ‘dressed to the nines,’ standing amid construction on the Charleston side of the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge. She ran a boarding house downtown and construction workers who were staying there escorted her to the bridge – note the tracks used to haul steel up the bridge.”
Karen Shuler says
Numerous people flew under the Grace Bridge in the ’40s, including my aunt, Nancy Fishburne, who worked as a pilot for Bevo Howard. Langhorne Howard probably recalls her father flying under it as well. At the time, my mother, Suzanne, and my aunt lived with my grandparents, Anne and George Fishburne, at 73 East Bay.
Freda R. Koster says
I was very disappointed to learn that not even a section of the old bridges were kept to use as historic site somewhere in the area. This was history! I am so sad – we lost all but the pictures.
I miss the Grace and the Pearman.
I remember crossing the Grace when traffic was two way. When we visited Folly Beach in 1965 the Pearman was under construction and I wondered what the two bridges would look like next to each other. I admit, I was happy and felt they complimented each other.
Their appearance from afar– airborne from the River or ocean waters gave Charleston and the Cooper River a very distinctive look and feel. From wherever I saw them, I knew I was near Charleston and home again.
The new Ravenel Bridge is no different than dozens of other bridges around the country. It is too ‘modern’ to represent what ‘Old Charleston’ is all about. Nothing distinctive about it. I was disappointed when I saw the plans and I still am.
I rarely cross it. In fact, I avoid it. I have never ‘willingly’ crossed it. I just happened to be in a car that ‘had’ to cross it. It wasn’t something I looked forward to and I don’t see this feeling ever changing. I’ve seen and crossed too many bridges that look just about like it. Nothing about it says “This is Charleston, SC.”
My opinion. I miss the old bridges. I also miss other older bridges in the Charleston area. Maybe I just feel the ‘modern look’ does not go with what I have always felt like Charleston represented. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for what Charleston once was.
Bofa Deez says
My grandfather Jim L. Matthews helped George H. Asbell build the Grace Memorial Bridge.
Wayne Asbell says
My Grandfather’s first cousin George H. Asbell built this bridge. He lived in Panama City, FL but his uncle JW Asbell lived in Charleston. George built bridges all over the world. He was a Clemson Engineering school graduate and a WW1 veteran.
SC Picture Project says
Wow, how wonderful! George H. Asbell built the Grace Memorial Bridge? Was he with a team of contractors or how did it all work? We would love to know more to add to the article!
Beverly Sherrod says
My father was stationed in Charleston, SC twice while he was in the Navy. I was 12-years old when we moved away. I always remember the Cooper River Bridges with some trepidation. I never liked going across the bridges, but I always thought they were impressive structures. I remember them with sadness, knowing they are no longer there.
Thanks — would certainly be interesting to find out.
I’ve read somewhere that police officers (possibly state Highway Patrol) were posted at the bridge at one time to “escort” female drivers who were afraid of driving across the bridge to the other side. Is there any truth to that story?
You certainly have some interesting stories on here. There obviously were people who were scared of that bridge, no doubt about that.
SC Picture Project says
Not that we have ever heard, we will definitely look into this further and see what can be found!
Tom Ross says
What was the height of the Old Cooper River Bridge?
SC Picture Project says
The Old Cooper River Bridge (Grace Memorial) was 250 feet tall and had a clearance of 155 feet. The New Cooper River Bridge (Pearman) was likewise 250 feet tall with a clearance of 155 feet. The Ravenel Bridge is 575 feet tall with a 187-foot clearance.
Before the old bridges were taken down, my brothers and I took a small motor boat and completely navigated around the bridge while I took 243 photos of the bridge. I would love to publish the best of these photos in a book if time would allow. The bridge did scare me enough for me to make use of the emergency parking place in the middle of the bridge, but it was a part of Charleston history I will never forget. I do love the ease of the new bridge however.
Thomas J. Brown says
I am researching the life of Lt. John Francis Bates. He was a navy pilot in WWII. The story I am trying to run down is that he flew under the old Grace Memorial Bridge in 1943. He may have been stationed in NAS Beaufort for training on PV-1 or PBY-1’s. It probably would have made the papers.
SC Picture Project says
Hello Thomas, this sounds like a fascinating story! We looked through newspaper articles on GenealogyBank.com and did not see mention of him flying the plane. We do not see any mentions on Newspapers.com either. Are you sure that it was 1943? We would recommend reaching out to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History or the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Library. Both of those places have extensive files and should have a folder or two on the subject. We hope this helps!
Emily Benedict Gascoyne says
The bridge height in question is the 1929 Grace Memorial Bridge. Thanks again.
Emily Benedict Gascoyne says
Does anyone know the height between the Old Bridge’s breakdown lane and Drum Island below? Many childhood memories … thanks!
Meredith F. Helms says
I have heard that there was an Air Force pilot who flew his jet under the Cooper River Bridge in the 1940s. I was wondering if anyone else has ever heard this story. I have a name of a pilot that may have flown under the twin bridges. Just checking if anyone else has ever heard this amazing story.
Dori Chesney Edwards says
There was a comment made by a man in 2018 about the same thing. Its in the comments section of this story.
Doug Capra says
I’m doing an article about the sailor Paul Muller whose vessel, the “Aga,” went aground off Charleston in 1929. People there raised $1,000 to build him a new boat and part of the opening ceremonies of the Cooper River Bridge were dedicated to him as he sailed out of the harbor. Do you a file on him, and especially photographs of him while in Charleston?
Betsey Pyatt Norton says
So very proud of my grandpa R.T. and my Uncle Wayne who worked on so many bridges in this area. Uncle Wayne even saved a worker after he fell off the bridge.
Susanne LeSane Tillery says
During my childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s, I used to visit with my aunt and uncle in Charleston in the summer. I couldn’t wait to see that bridge and cross it. Back then they called it the Cooper River Bridge. I loved it! The new bridge is beautiful and exciting to cross.
Freda R. Koster says
I too loved the old bridges. Like Susanne, we just called them the Cooper River bridges. My father would take us to the beaches Folly and Isle of Palms every summer. We would beg to cross the bridges even if we weren’t going that way. I have to this day not even seen the new Ravenel Bridge in person. It looks beautiful but it is terribly sad that a love from my childhood is no more. I miss the chance to experience that drive for myself.
Karen Yvonee Pyatt says
My grandpa Pyatt and my dad Wayne Pyatt helped build this bridge a long time ago.
Gail Mcnaughton says
Terri Platts, Mary Ann Riggs was my great grandmother, married to Julius Riggs. Are you from the Burton or Riggs family?
Tracey Huff says
Terri Platts, how are you related to Mary Ann Riggs? I am related to her sister, Ellen Burton Rantin.
Bill Raybourne says
In 1960, my Citadel roomie and I headed toward the Old Bridge on the way to IOP. On the way he had a flat tire – a dire event on the old bridge. But we got it done somehow. On the way back, we ran out of gas and had to push the car toward Charleston to a station at the end of the bridge.
Sam Mcilwain says
In 1949 I was just learning to drive, and we were in my friend’s car and we were double dating. I was driving and they all said let’s go to Mount Pleasant. My heart about quit, but I was to proud to say that I wasn’t afraid to drive across the bridge. There was only one bridge at that time, and for those who drove that bridge back then, it was a challenge for an experienced driver, let alone for a 14-year-old trying to learn to drive. It was a real confidence builder when I got to other side. We still switched drivers on the way back. Lol!
David Chapman says
Scared to death as a child! Used to lay down and hide when we went over the bridge. Still scared of high bridges.
Katie Giebel says
I’m looking to purchase a print of all three Mount Pleasant bridges. Do you sell a picture like this? Or do you know where I could get one for a gift? Thank you so much!
SC Picture Project says
Feel free to contact any of the photographers through their links to see if they would be interested in selling their images! If you need the email address for a particular photographer, we can put you in touch!
George Scearce says
The old bridge gave me a phobia about bridges for years … I'm over that now!
Hey, Sparky! My husband and I used to cross the old bridges from/to Mt. Pleasant for work in downtown Charleston for years (he for longer than I, because I soon sought and found work in Mt. Pleasant, much closer to our house, to cut down on my daily commute; he didn’t have that choice, unfortunately). Anyway, I also took some pictures just prior to the demolition of the old bridges, with both old and new in the photos. Not a whole collection and I’m sure nothing compared to yours! We’ll have to stop in at Royall Hardware and look for your picture-book next time we’re over in Mt. Pleasant (we moved about 35 miles inland from there about a decade ago, when it began to get too crowded and traffic started becoming a nightmare in Mt. Pleasant).
Sparky Witte says
I published a book – “End of an Era” – and it is for sale at Royall Hardward in Mt. Pleasant. I witnessed the demolition of the Bridges close up and captured pictures for two and a half years. It is a picture book.
Terry (West/Sheehan) McCabe says
My Grandfather, John Henry West, died (4/19/1929) building the Grace Bridge. My mother, Joy West, was born the day before the bridge was open for traffic.
Terri Platts says
My great aunt, Mary Anne Riggs, used to take her husband lunch on the Mt. Pleasant side when they were building the Grace back in 1929!