A setting sun and the Columbia city lights give the Gervais Street Bridge a warm evening glow. The Gervais Street Bridge connects West Columbia and with downtown Columbia by spanning the Congaree River. The ornamental bridge is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Capital City.
Several bridges have crossed these waters, the earliest being a toll bridge built here in 1791. That bridge was replaced with a wooden bridge in 1827, which was burned by Confederate troops during the Civil War in order to forestall Union forces from entering the city. A new bridge was built in 1870, which was ultimately replaced with the current bridge.
Construction on the bridge began in 1926, and it was completed in 1928. It was designed by Charleston engineer Joseph W. Barnwell. Until 1953, it was the only bridge that crossed the Congaree River. Today, several crossings take pedestrians and motorists over the river, though this bridge is the oldest.
Above the railings on the bridge sit cast iron light fixtures. The decorative lights posts have a palmetto tree on their bases. On the octagonal posts there are vine patterns and an acanthus leaf, which stands for quality, longevity, and creativity.
Despite the decorative detail on its railings, the Gervais Street Bridge is best known for its dramatic arches that span the river. Two closed spandrel arches anchor the bridge at either end, while nine open spandrel arches support the length of the bridge. Spandrels are the spaces between arches and can be open or closed, or solid.
If you kayak the Congaree River near the Gervais Street Bridge, be on the lookout – it is thought that General Sherman and his troops dumped munitions into the river at this spot after burning the city. Excavators, under the guidance of explosives experts, plan to retrieve the relics over the next few years. Anything recovered will likely be kept in the Relic Room of the South Carolina State Museum.
Tar also pollutes the river near the bridge. The tar was found by river guide Austin Bunn, and the discovery was announced in 2010. The sticky substance is the byproduct of coal gasification. It is believed to have been in the river for around 100 years and is slated to be removed by South Carolina Electric and Gas.
The Gervais Street Bridge is listed in the National Register:
One of four open spandrel arch bridges of reinforced concrete in South Carolina, the Gervais Street Bridge spans the Congaree River and links Columbia to the western and southern parts of the state. At the time of its construction, begun in February 1926 and completed in June 1928, the bridge had the widest roadway in the state. From 1928 until 1953, the Gervais Street Bridge was the only Columbia Congaree River bridge and is the earliest and most decorative of the three bridges that now cross the river. The site historically has served bridges and ferries. Ferry service was first replaced about 1791 by a toll bridge. A subsequent wooden bridge completed about 1827 was burned in 1865 to delay General W. T. Sherman’s army. The rebuilt bridge was privately owned until 1912 when it was purchased by Richland County in cooperation with Lexington County. The 1415-foot reinforced concrete bridge was constructed by Hardaway Contracting Company of Columbus, Georgia. It cost $597,167 to construct. The bridge was designed by Joseph W. Barnwell of Charleston, bridge engineer for the State Highway Department. Above the flanking balustrades on the bridge are cast iron light fixtures. The decorative fixtures have the letter C and a palmetto on the bases, a vine pattern on the eight-sided post, and an acanthus leaf design on the necking.
Reflections on the Gervais Street Bridge
Photographer Erin Clarkson shares: “I’m from West Columbia and have always admired the architectural style of the Gervais Street Bridge. It looks beautiful from all angles, but is particularly stunning from below. As a child, I traveled across this bridge with my family every weekend to enjoy Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ home in Shandon. I also have fond memories of exploring the park and trails on both sides of the river with my dad and brother. My dad (James A. Wactor) worked for SCE&G and would tell stories of how he helped design a high water alert system for the Saluda River, which feeds into the Congaree River.”
Photographer Joe William Woodard, Jr., who took the photo below, says: “I have kayaked and fished this river most of my life. The Gervais Street Bridge is just downstream of the confluence of the Saluda River that flows out from the Lake Murray Dam and the Broad River to form the Congaree River which begins at or just above the bridge. I travel across this bridge every day, twice a day for work. On this particular morning I noticed a nice fog had settled on the river and I knew that I had to turn around and try to shoot something. The overhanging limbs provided a great frame for this shot. I shot a series of images but this was one of my
Contributor Kathryn Harris writes, “I saw this bridge on my first visit to Columbia and thought it would be awesome to photograph at sunset. Truly a beautiful site. I will come back in the spring to photograph it again.”
Photographer Benton Henry tells the story of his photo at the top of the page: “The photograph was made for an article celebrating the 25th anniversary of Columbia Business Monthly magazine. They asked me to get them a shot that would say ‘Columbia.’ I thought this did it, and so did they. It has since been used for a phone book cover, websites and sold as a fine print throughout the area.”