Photo: Cortez Bridge 1922 courtesy of the Manatee County Public Library Archives.
By Halee Turner
For many years, before there was a bridge to span the stretch of water between Cortez and Anna Maria, people could only travel to and from the island by boat. Visitors and supplies had to be brought in by excursion boats to a dock extending from the end of Pine Avenue.
Then, in 1920, county commissioners determined there was a need for a bridge to connect the island and the mainland, so they began the search for an engineer. Eventually, Jack Leffingwell was selected for the job.
Jack was no stranger to Manatee County. Along with his father, Dr. J. B. Leffingwell, he had played a significant role in the formation and operation of both the Gulf Telephone Company and Gulf Coast Telegraph Company. After that, he worked across the globe, including time spent in Central America as an employee of the United Fruit Company, in Cuba as a part of the sugar industry, and in France as a member of the National Guard. Although he had no prior experience with bridge building, he agreed to give this newest challenge his best effort.
Construction started in the summer of 1921, but the project experienced a major setback in October when a hurricane struck the west coast of Florida and roared through Sarasota Bay. It devastated Cortez and the surrounding area, demolishing the partially completed bridge.
With salvaged lumber they resumed construction, and in 1922 the bridge reached completion. It extended across the bay from what we now know as Bridge Street to the fishing village of Cortez, providing easier access to the island. However, the bridge was noisy and narrow. Its boards rattled as cars sped across and it was said to sway in wind or rough water. When a school bus or truck needed to cross, traffic came to a halt. Drivers were afraid the extra weight could put too much strain on the bridge, causing it to collapse.
The Intracoastal Waterway had not been dredged at the time, so the little bridge had to be opened and closed for passing boats. The bridge tender stopped traffic by cranking the cross arms down by hand and manually rotated a section of the bridge, only to complete the process in reverse once the boat had safely passed. It was hard but necessary work.
In the 1950s, the bridge was replaced by the more modern, concrete structure we recognize today. At its grand opening, five elephants were paraded across the bridge, a testament to its strength and stability. Although the lead elephant was skeptical, cautiously extending a foot to test the grated portion of the bridge before proceeding, they crossed successfully. They were followed by a caravan of cars and then an official dedication ceremony. As US Senator Spessard L. Holland cut the ribbon on the brand new bridge, he said, “It is a pleasure to see you get something you’ve wanted a long, long time.”
The opening celebration also included a variety of shows throughout the island and free passage over the bridge, before the 15 cent toll went into effect. Within the first 40 minutes, toll officials recorded a staggering 500 cars passing between the island and Cortez. For further reading about the first bridge to Anna Maria Island, consider The Early Days 1893-1940 by Carolyne Norwood.