By Jennifer Glenfield
Special to The Islander
In 1957, during the Golden Age of Radio, Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” topped the Billboard charts and “American Bandstand” made its debut.
The same year, construction on the modern, concrete bridge from Cortez to Anna Maria Island was complete and everyone — from government officials to citizens — was ready to celebrate.
On March 3, 1957, at 1:45 p.m. U.S. Sen. Spessard L. Holland stood at the island tollbooth where the dedication ceremony was held. A ride on the bridge that day was free. It would cost drivers 10-25 cents to take the bridge for the next 13 years, recouping the cost of the bridge construction.
After the ribbon was cut, elephants carrying women in bathing suits paraded across the bridge to an islandwide celebration, according to an archived transcript of a speech prepared by historian and Manatee County librarian Pam Gibson.
At the west end of the bridge in Bradenton Beach, there was an all-out street fair. A carnival on Bridge Street included dancing, a live band and the Texas Jim Mitchell Circus. The festivities ran until midnight.
In Holmes Beach, a wax replica of the “Last Supper” stood at the Manatee County Beach pavilion, alongside a second carnival, where visitors could board small aircraft for a sightseeing tour.
Anna Maria joined in as well. The Water Ski Club put on a show there and, after sunset, fireworks blasted into the night sky from the Anna Maria City Pier.
In the post World War II era, the now “functionally obsolete” drawbridge was heralded as a triumph of American progress. It met the needs of a burgeoning population, reflected a booming economy and was a superior alternative to the dilapidated wooden structure that split Anna Maria Sound from Sarasota Bay and carried traffic to and from the island since the 1920s.
Florida was experiencing a resurgence in tourism that sustains the economy today. The state had its first tourism boom in the early 1920s, which went bust after a hurricane wiped out infrastructure and a series of bad land investments chased out many newcomers.
In the late 1800s, post-Civil War Manatee County’s population was 2,800 and included nearly 5,000 square miles. The federal government ran programs encouraging settlers to develop the state and to control indigenous tribes who held their ground fiercely.
In spite of the obstacles that made the tourism industry virtually nonexistent by 1929, the population had more than tripled statewide. Agriculture was the primary livelihood and in Manatee County, Cortez was recognized as the largest mullet fishery in the state.
During War World II, the area fed the soldiers. But by the late 1950s, most soldiers had returned home, the fishing was good and people from all over the country were traveling to Florida to vacation. It also was a time for infrastructure projects — bridges in particular.
The year 1957 saw the Cortez Bridge and the Anna Maria Island Bridge open to serve the northern part of the island to the mainland via an extended Manatee Avenue. The DeSoto Bridge in Bradenton opened in 1955 to meet north-south traffic demands from the single-span Sunshine Skyway Bridge. At almost the same time, a new bridge opened from Bradenton Beach to Longboat Key.
Gibson said the island bridges were part of a five-bridge program to build up Manatee County in the postwar era. Without the bridges, travelers would either continue straight to Miami or go to Sarasota.
In correspondence between Billie Martini and the Florida Department of Transportation in 2013, the DOT wrote there were no specific records of the construction timing, but it was able to determine construction of the Cortez Bridge took about 42-48 months.
In the same letter, the DOT wrote there were no records of the cost to build the 1957 bridge that had its first repair in 1988. And by the 1980s, there was a lot of discussion over DOT projects in western Manatee County.
In summer 1980, Cortez Road was widened to the four lanes travelers know today, and residents in the village had protested the project, standing roadside with poster boards. One sign read, “If the road was 4-laned, you’d be moving too fast to read this.”
And whether or not the project reduced traffic congestion, the county population was growing faster than its roadways. Between 1980 and 1990, the population increased more than 42 percent — topping 200,000 residents, according to the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research. The increase continued a historic and current trend that’s pushed Florida to the position of third most populous state in the country at nearly 21 million people, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
From 2000 to 2010, Manatee County grew another 22 percent, 5 percent faster than the rest of the state, despite losing 191,000 jobs in the 2008 recession.
In 1989, the DOT proposed a 65-foot-clearance, fixed-span bridge to replace the Cortez Bridge. And the community was feeling the growing pains.
“They wanted to put four bridges in. The Department of Transportation never really cared about the island,” said Katie Pierola, former Bradenton Beach mayor. “They mostly cared about the traffic.”
In the next few years, Cortezians and island residents — led by Pierola and a small group that became the core of Save Anna Maria — put up a fight.
And they won.
They delayed the DOT’s plans to replace both mainland feeders, first the Cortez Bridge, and, when DOT pivoted its efforts to the Anna Maria Island Bridge, they fought the bridge on environmental concerns and again halted progress.
By 1993, SAM, the grass-roots group incorporated as a nonprofit, backed mostly by island residents with the mission to fight the ambitious proposals. SAM mounted a legal battle and lobbied lawmakers in the state capitol. In Cortez, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage formed to preserve the fishing village’s way of life.
In the next part of this series, The Islander will recount the legal battle waged against the state agency and the steps these grass-roots organizations took to preserve their communities.