The iconic bridges of Hilton Head

Bridging the gap

The iconic bridges of Hilton Head have played a vital role in the island’s growth and development.

Story by Clayton Trutor

Former U.S. Sen. Earnest “Fritz” Hollings is shown with former S.C. Gov. James F. Byrnes and his wife, Maude, at the dedication of the James F. Byrnes Bridge in 1956. A member of the Democratic Party, Byrnes served in U.S. Congress and on the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as in the executive branch, most prominently as the 49th U.S. Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. ©Courtesy of USC Libraries

Modern-day Hilton Head Island owes much of its success to its bridges, which have played a vital role in shaping the island’s political, economic and social landscape. The development versus conservation debate has been at the heart of many of the island’s disputes, with transportation investments remaining a hotly contested area of public policy.

The island’s emergence as one of the world’s great resort destinations can be traced back to the establishment of the James F. Byrnes Bridge in 1956, which brought billions of dollars of investment onto the island, hundreds of thousands of visitors and a more permanent array of services for residents and visitors alike. The bridge made possible the establishment of Sea Pines, Harbour Town and all of Hilton Head’s remarkable communities, as well as the creation of more than two-dozen golf courses, the Heritage golf tournament, women’s professional tennis, great restaurants, shops and even an airport.

 In 1956 the James F. Byrnes Bridge opened to great fanfare. A ceremony that drew many of the state’s leading dignitaries marked the occasion. Tolls of $2.50 and later $1.25 per trip collected by the Bridge Authority between 1956 and 1959 paid off the lion’s share of Byrnes’ $1.5 million cost (roughly $16.5 million in 2023 dollars). 

However, the Byrnes bridge’s shortcomings were evident from the start, with its swing span causing frequent outages and being imperiled by large ships passing by on the Intracoastal Waterway. A ship struck the bridge in 1972, putting it out of commission for close to a week, and in 1974 a barge rammed into the bridge, causing the longest outage in its history.

The 1974 barge accident jump started an effort to improve transportation onto the island, and the construction of the J. Wilton Graves Bridge began in 1979. The new bridge would be taller, wider, permanent and more robust than its predecessor. The completion of the first fixed-span structure over Skull Creek was Graves’ crowning achievement. Interestingly the move to improve transportation on and off the island in the early 1980s corresponded with a political push to give the Hilton Head community greater control over the rapid development taking place.

The March 29, 1974, issue of The Island Packet newspaper covered the 1974 barge crash into the James F. Byrnes Bridge. The incident led to the construction of the J. Wilton Graves Bridge in 1979.

Just days after the new bridge’s grand opening, Hilton Head Island residents voted to create a permanent commission to advise them on issues impacting the community, and in 1983 Hilton Head Island voted to incorporate as a town. As Hilton Head weighs questions of conservation, cost, congestion and development in its plans for expanded transportation across Skull Creek, residents are participating in a nearly century-long discussion.

Overall the bridges of Hilton Head Island have played a vital role in the island’s growth and development. While they have faced their fair share of challenges and controversies, they have helped to make Hilton Head Island one of the most desirable destinations in the world.

At the behest of early Hilton Head investors, the state highway department developed a regular ferry service in 1953. The ferry made 12 trips per day and could hold nine cars at a time. A trip cost $1 per car (roughly $11.30 in 2023 dollars) plus a 25-cent fee for additional passengers.

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