History of Outer Banks Bridges

Oregon Inlet bridgeOuter Banks bridges are in the news quite a bit these days. Local news, of course, it’s rare that this rises to the national level. With one of the spans of the Wright Memorial Bridge closed for maintenance until mid-May, and the Bonner Bridge crossing Oregon Inlet leaping a huge legal hurdle, there’s good reason to think about what the bridges mean to Outer Banks life.

Until the Outer Banks were connected to the rest of the U.S. transportation network, residents were truly isolated. There were regular mail boats making runs from Elizabeth City, and with the advent of steamships and gasoline motors, the trip became a bit more predictable. Nonetheless, until the first bridges were built, getting onto and off the Outer Banks could entail an entire day on the water.

There is some debate whether a privately financed wooden toll bridge, connecting Kitty Hawk to the Currituck Mainland, or the Washington Baum Bridge, connecting Manteo and Nags Head, was constructed first. What is known is that both were built in the 1920s.

The wooden bridge connecting Point Harbor and Kitty Hawk was, by all accounts poorly constructed, poorly maintained and because it was low to the water, impassable in high winds due to wave wash over.

The Washington Baum Bridge started its life as little more than a causeway. In 1962, the state built a new bridge, but as the Outer Banks became more popular and more boat traffic increased on the sound, a center span was needed. The current Washington Baum Bridge with its high center arch was completed in 1994.

It was big news when the Wright Memorial Bridge was dedicated in 1966. At the time, it was a single span, but as the Outer Banks continued to grow, so did the traffic and in 1997 a parallel span was completed. The bridge handling incoming traffic is the original.

The first bridge using modern building techniques connecting the Outer Banks with the mainland was the William B. Umstead Bridge, joining Manns Harbor and Manteo, and bringing US Route 64 all the way to Whalebone Junction in Nags Head. A two lane span, it has been supplanted by the four lane Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge that was completed in 2003. As an interesting footnote, thousands of purple marlins use the Umstead Bridge as a roosting site and in the morning and evening it is a remarkable sight to see them going or coming.

The most spectacular and by far the most difficult to construct was the Bonner Bridge that connects the northern Outer Banks with Hatteras Island. A remarkable engineering feat when it was completed, it had a planned lifespan of 30-40 years–which it is clearly past at this point in time.

To their credit, NCDOT has done a remarkable job of keeping the bridge safe and operating, but it is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to do so. A $215.8 million replacement project is ready to roll as soon as pending lawsuits are resolved.
In September of 2013, a summary judgment made against the Southern Environmental Law Center rejecting their contention that the selection process was flawed. This is a big step forward.

Not making the list is the Mid-Currituck Bridge, which has been in the planning stages for over 20 years. The bridge almost made it to the point of construction two years ago only to have the state legislature deny funding at the last moment.