“This has been a dream for so many years and for so many people,” said Dare County Commissioner Chairman Bob Woodard, as he addressed the crowd of residents and visitors who attended the Feb. 9 Community Day celebrating the Bonner Bridge Replacement. “Today is the fulfillment of a dream.”
A formal ribbon cutting ceremony is set for April 2.
The opening of the Bonner Bridge replacement bridge in February — the only non-ferry access between Bodie and Hatteras islands — marks the end of 26 years of work and the beginning of a new chapter in the short history of bridge over Oregon Inlet.
Separating Bodie Island and Pea Island and bringing together the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, Oregon Inlet was formed by a hurricane in 1846. Named for the Oregon, a ship trapped in the Pamlico Sound during the hurricane, the new inlet would inspire nearly 200 years of change for Hatteras residents, the coast of North Carolina, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Beginning in 1924, Captain Toby Tillet provided a ferry service across the inlet to Hatteras Island. Prior to that, travelers to and from the island had to find their own way across. The first ferry was a 30-foot barge capable of carrying two cars at a time and was towed behind a boat across the notoriously rough and difficult waters of the inlet. On the north side of the inlet, Tillet built a shack. On the south side, he put up a flag pole with a flag to be hoisted should someone need passage across the inlet. This system stayed in place until 1928, when demand was high enough that regular schedule crossings were established.
In 1931, Tillet launched the Barcelona, a 14-car ferry. In the late-1930s, the state recognized the importance of Captain Tillet’s business and bought in, allowing Tillet to drop the crossing toll from $2 to $1. The toll was dropped completely in 1941 when Tillet leased his ferry and services to the state, heralding the beginning of the North Carolina ferry system. In 1949, there were five regular crossings with an average of 25 vehicles a day. In 1950, he sold the business to the North Carolina Highway Department.
By the time of the ferry’s sale, there was already a conversation about the necessity of a bridge across Oregon Inlet.
In the late-1940s, an ambitious paving project began to connect the villages on Hatteras Island. In late 1952, a paved road was completed from Pea Island to Hatteras Village. This new accessibility inspired more visitors to venture to the island which lead to a significant increase of congestion. Eventually, a camping area was set up at the Coquina Beach Day Use area to accommodate people who waited overnight for a ferry crossing. The establishment of the National Seashore in 1953 further increased demand on a safe, efficient means of crossing the inlet.
Congressman Herbert C. Bonner began putting his support behind the construction of a bridge and the formation of a National Seashore in 1949. Finally, after years of debate and controversy, construction was approved, and the Bonner Bridge opened in late-1963.
Built at a cost of $4 million dollars, the new bridge was built with a lifespan of 60 years. During its lifespan tourism to Hatteras Island grew by leaps and bounds and, by 2016, an estimated 2 million visitors crossed the bridge each year.
Life for the Bonner Bridge hasn’t always been easy. In October 1990, a nor’easter carried a runaway barge into the bridge causing a 370-foot section to fall into Oregon Inlet, leaving Hatteras cut off and without electricity for weeks. From 1987 until 1999, an estimated $50 million was spent on bridge repairs but the much needed replacement faced epic delays and multiple lawsuits for decades. During that time, the bridge closed for two weeks in December 2013, when routine testing revealed that too much sand had eroded from the bridge’s support structures.
Finally, in March 2016, ground was broken for the replacement bridge. At 2.8 miles long and 90.5-feet high, the replacement bridge features wide shoulders and a 3,500-foot long high rise portion with increased passage for boats. Built from high-durability concrete and stainless reinforcing steel, the replacement bridge has an expected lifespan of 100 years. The replacement bridge cost $252 million.
On Feb. 9, Commissioner Chairman Woodard addressed a crowd of approximately 1,000 Dare County residents and visitors who braved the sub-freezing temperatures and 20-30 mph winds to be the first to walk across the newly constructed bridge.
“I never thought I would be here in my lifetime, but I am certainly glad that this day is here,” he said. The bridge opened to vehicular traffic later in February.
The story isn’t over for the original Bonner Bridge, however. A 1,000-foot span on the south end of the bridge will remain open for the public while the rest of the bridge will be used to bolster local reef sites.