By Alicia McCutcheon
For the Manitoulin Expositor
GLOUCESTER POINT, VIRGINIA—Some Islanders have picked up on the engineering feat that is George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge that spans the York River, joining the communities of Yorktown and Gloucester Point, Virginia when it comes to thinking about our own Manitoulin Island swing bridge replacement.
The George P. Coleman Memorial has the claim to fame of being America’s largest double-lane swing bridge at 3,750 feet long (and second largest in the world)—supporting four lanes of traffic. The bridge replaced an older structure in 1996 in a matter of nine days by being built off-site, 48 kilometres downriver in Norfolk, then floated upstream to replace the older two-lane swing bridge.
This new bridge replaced a swing bridge constructed in 1952 that had exceeded its traffic capacity of 15,000 vehicles per day.
To start, crews floated in a 560 foot-long, 8.1 million-pound anchor span and a 210 foot-long, 2.58 million-pound suspended span, according to a 1996 article from the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette Journal. Each of those spans had been placed after the original bridge was torn down. (It was eventually dismantled and sold for scrap.)
“The swing span had to be moved inch by inch,” the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette Journal reported, describing the maneuvers as a “very delicate installation” that took several attempts due to high winds that hindered the process.
Barges were used to float out the old bridges and position the new sections into their assigned places along the bridge corridor, the newspaper wrote. Special pumps were aboard the barges that filled up with water to set a new piece of bridge into place and then emptied to lift an old section off its pier cap. Cranes were also part of the process.
The George P. Coleman Memorial is America’s largest double-lane swing bridge at 3,750 feet long (and second largest in the world) and supports four lanes of traffic.
Crews of 240 ran around the clock to get the bridge into place while the United States Coast Guard also patrolled the area, keeping the area clear of traffic for safety reasons and stopping recreational traffic from passing through. Boaters were threatened with up to $25,000 in fines for breaching the safety zone set up by the coast guard, the newspaper reported.
One life was lost during the construction of the swing bridge, a 25-year-old construction worker who fell to his death.
The new bridge, with two swinging spans, was opened in August of 1996 to great fanfare and was called an “amazing feat of advanced engineering” as the new bridge sections were created in Norfolk just three months before their installation.
“For the first time ever, a bridge was built with everything needed to carry traffic,” then-Virginia Governor George Allen told the crowd during the official opening, according to the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette Journal. “The deck was paved, the barrier walls were in place, the light poles were up, even the bridge tender’s house was ready to be occupied. Nothing like this has ever been done on a bridge this size.”
The new bridge came with tolls, however, 50 cents for a round-trip upon its opening. This was a contentious issue for the community. Today, the toll is $2 for a double-axle vehicle.
Quinton Sheppard, a reporter for the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette Journal, told The Expositor that much like Manitoulin, the people of Yorktown and Gloucester have a special connection to their swing bridge and it’s an iconic piece of scenery for the communities it serves. Like the Manitoulin swing bridge, the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge is featured in many a photo and is an important part of the landscape.
Perhaps the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge can serve as an example to the Ministry of Transportation of what can be done for the Manitoulin swing bridge, replacing the bridge but keeping this important infrastructure—a swinging bridge—that is key in the hearts and minds of so many.