Journals of Yesteryear

First Ringling Bridge was Built to Help Sell a Subdivision

Construction of the Ringling Causeway Began in 1925

Author: Mark D. Smith, former County Archivist
Source: Sarasota County History Center
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

In an interview by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1959, James A. Mortland, the engineer hired by John Ringling, said that Ringling ordered that the bridge be designed to last for 20 years and no more. It actually lasted 34 years. Mortland also revealed that the bridge represented the first construction project of any size in which oyster shell concrete was used. The concrete was used on the caps, slide-rails guards and hand-rails. High grade concrete was not used because it could not easily be obtained from sources from the north.

Ringling drove his green Rolls-Royce over the new bridge on January 1, 1926. Official notice of the original bridge's opening was not taken until January 10, 1926, when real estate brokers promoting developments on St. Armands and Longboat Key established free bus service over the causeway. The causeway was opened to the public February 7, 1926. Ringling presented the bridge to the city as a gift June 13, 1927 and it was accepted January 31, 1928. At the time it was stated that the causeway had cost $750,000.

According to the deed from John Ringling to the City of Sarasota, Ringling was to be paid the sum of $1 by the city for the bridge. In return, the city would maintain, operate and keep the bridge for "the free use of the public as a continuous and constant passage way." However, if the city, at any time failed to maintain the bridge, John Ringling Estates, Inc. would have the option to take the bridge back. This option never came into use, even though the bridge closed for a time in 1932 because the wooden planks had rotten and there was no available money to replace them.

In early 1951, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that State Road Chairman Alfred A. McKethan announced that a new bridge to replace the Ringling Causeway was in the works. Over the next few years the city and the state debated over the bridge. The city wanted to be sure that the state was planning a four-lane bridge. A two-lane bridge would be outdated before it was even started and would create a traffic snarl in Sarasota beyond solution. The debate as resolved, a contract of $20,070,276 was awarded and work on the new bridge began on April 24, 1957. The remains of the old Ringling Causeway bridge were torn down in 1959, bringing an end to the small-town feeling of Sarasota.

Special Thanks to Mark D. Smith, County Archivist, Sarasota County History Center for his research and time devoted to writing this article.

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