During the American Revolution, the Patriots built a bridge that has not only served to connect the mainland to Sullivan’s Island, but us to our past, as well. Though only its ruins remain, the Pitt Street Bridge is one of the Lowcountry’s most idyllic spots.
About a year after the hurried completion of Fort Sullivan in 1776, Gen. Christopher Gadsden’s troops strung together a row of barrels, laying sheets of iron over them to create a bridge spanning Cove Inlet, the waterway that separates Mount Pleasant from Sullivan’s Island. Roughly a mile long and 18 feet wide, the bridge was an impressive engineering accomplishment, able to bear the weight of troops, horses and cannons. After the Revolution, it fell into disrepair, made worse by an 1804 hurricane.
By the time of the Civil War, however, the bridge had been restored and figured prominently in another historic moment when, on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, eight Confederate crewmen left Ronkin’s Long Room on Ferry Street in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village to cross it on their way to board the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to successfully sink its target. Yet success in this case is a relative term, as it unfortunately would be the last bridge the crew ever crossed. Shortly after detonating the charge that sank the USS Housatonic, the sub and its crew mysteriously disappeared.
Unfortunately, the bridge spanning Cove Inlet did not survive the war either, and for nearly the rest of the 19th century the only way to get to Sullivan’s Island was again by boat. By the century’s end, however, a group of investors began developing Long Island, rebranding it as the Isle of Palms beach resort. In 1898, the remains of the Civil War-era bridge were replaced with a structurally sound drawbridge designed for Charleston’s new electric trolleys.
For nearly three decades thousands of people caught the ferry from downtown Charleston to a landing near today’s Alhambra Hall, then boarded the trolleys that would take them to the beaches of Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. Numbered stations were marked along the Sullivan’s Island trolley route, station names that survive today. By the 1920s, however, cars were becoming the ubiquitous mode of transportation, and the bridge was widened to accommodate two-way lanes in 1923. The trolley rails were removed in 1927.
By the mid-1930s, the Pitt Street bridge was deemed too narrow for two-way traffic. The state’s Highway Commission decided to build a new swing bridge about a mile to its east, named for former Chief Commissioner Ben Sawyer (1890-1940). With the opening of this larger, modern bridge on June 18, 1945, the Pitt Street Bridge was closed to traffic. The town of Mount Pleasant bought it from the county in 1950 and repurposed it as a fishing pier.
A fire later damaged much of the bridge, though the worst was yet to come when the eye of Hurricane Hugo passed directly over it around midnight on Sept. 22, 1989. Most of the bridge was blown away in winds estimated near 140 miles per hour.
Though Hugo destroyed the historic bridge, its causeway remains a vibrant part of the community today as a greenway known as Pickett Park, named for Dr. Otis and Ruth Pickett, childhood sweethearts who once walked across the bridge daily from their Sullivan’s Island home to his office next to the Pitt Street Pharmacy.
The bridge now ends abruptly in the middle of Cove Inlet, going nowhere, though one can still see the pilings of the old bridge above the water line. The spot provides breathtaking views of the Charleston city skyline, the harbor, Fort Sumter and the Intracoastal Waterway. A variety of shorebirds and sometimes dolphins are part of the scenery, as well. Joggers, dog-walkers, happy couples and fishermen all find an idyllic spot along the bridge’s remains, as do those who simply want to rest for a moment to reflect on the past.