Sarah Heller, a fifth-grader from Montana, hung over the rusted railing of the iconic Old Seven Mile Bridge on Wednesday morning, holding a glass container with a note and waterproof pen sealed inside by a cork and wax.
Right after a flock of pelicans, the bridge’s “Air Force,” flew by in formation, the bespectacled 11-year-old counted “3-2-1” before dropping her message in a bottle into the water for a trip to who knows where.
Sarah and her family didn’t know it, but two hours after they made that vacation memory, the Monroe County Commission approved agreements with the Florida Department of Transportation and the city of Marathon for a $77.5 million, 30-year project to preserve a 2.2-mile stretch of the crumbling, 102-year-old bridge for future generations to enjoy.
After the vote, Marathon Mayor Dick Ramsay led several other supporters in chanting: “We Saved Old Seven.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“It has been on my bucket list,” said Gus Pego, FDOT’s District 6 secretary, who has been involved for years in the negotiations.
After decades of trying to come up with a long-term preservation plan for Old Seven, which became a bridge to nowhere in 1982 when the new Seven Mile Bridge was completed, this grand plan was reached relatively quickly.
It began to come together late last summer, at one of the bleakest points for bridge supporters, when an $18 million plan that split the cost 50-50 between the state and county was going nowhere, said Bernard Spinard, president of the grass-roots Friends of Old Seven nonprofit group.
That’s when a group of local politicians and administrators went to Tallahassee to make their case that Old Seven is not only a historic treasure but also an international tourist attraction that is important to the economy.
“The governor, cabinet and secretary of transportation were shown it’s an irreplaceable asset,” Spinard said. “We told them they should meet the challenge.”
In December, FDOT presented Monroe County and the city of Marathon with a plan that called for the state to pay 75 percent of the cost and maintain ownership. “If they didn’t accept ownership, it would have been a deal-breaker,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastessi said.
Based on an analysis of detailed inspections, the $77.5 million project includes repairs, restoration, long-term maintenance and the return of limited vehicular traffic that includes a passenger trolley. It also includes repair of the bridge’s ramp to Pigeon Key, a five-acre island that served as a camp for railroad workers building the bridge.
The bridge was completed in 1912, becoming one of the last sections of the Key West extension of the Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. Both Pigeon Key and Old Seven are on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I know it’s a big, scary number, but it’s worth it,” said longtime Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent, an ardent supporter of the bridge, of the project’s cost.
The steel and concrete bridge, which connects Marathon to Little Duck Key as part of the Overseas Highway, has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. At the time it was built it was considered an engineering marvel on par with the Panama Canal. Three years after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed parts of the railway, but not the bridge, Old Seven was converted for vehicle traffic.
Jack Kornetti, who wore a King of the Couch T-shirt while taking a walk on the bridge Wednesday morning, said he drove on it many times. The two lanes were less than 10 feet wide with no shoulders, making for some tight navigating — especially for trucks. He said he remembered two trucks carrying sod trying to pass each other, and both ended up in the water.
Brad White, who has spent more than 4,000 hours manning the Friends of Old Seven table at the north end of the bridge, said more than 25,000 people signed the petition to save it.
“This is a two-mile linear park over water,” he said.
Some ride their bikes on the bridge. Others stroll, jog, take photos and gaze at the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. They come to see the sun rise and set, the marine life, the birds and the vastness of it all.
But while the bridge amazingly has withstood the test of time — the harsh conditions of salt water and humidity, and quite a few hurricanes — it has been rapidly deteriorating over the past couple of decades, with only patchwork maintenance.
In 2007, the bridge was deemed unsafe for vehicle traffic, which meant Henry the Trolley was out of the business of transporting people to Pigeon Key. Next, FDOT deemed that same portion of the bridge too unsafe for fishermen, who constantly lean against the rails.
Many in the Keys have fought against spending so much money on the aging structure, but with the economy picking up — especially in Monroe County, where tourism has been incredibly strong for the past couple of years — the state deal was too good to pass up.
The state is contributing $57.2 million. Monroe County is paying 18 percent of the cost ($14.24 million), and the city of Marathon is contributing 7 percent ($5.34 million). The Monroe County Commission voted 4-1 to approve the agreement with the state.
Pego said he would immediately order his staff to start design work on the repairs and restoration. If all goes well, construction can begin in about two years. It probably will take another year or two to complete the work.
“Almost every major component of the bridge needs to be repaired,” Pego said. “The substructure, the superstructure, the railings, in order to make it safe for pedestrians.”
The new design will allow the bridge to handle vehicle loads of 17 tons, enabling emergency vehicles, tourist trolleys and light supply trucks to use it.
The plan also includes two major paintings for the bridge, after 15 years and 30 years, to the tune of $21 million.
The Marathon Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of Old Seven also have been working on plans to upgrade Pigeon Key and to vastly improve Sunset Park, at the north end of the bridge. “We want to turn the whole thing into a world-class facility,” said Spinrad, who once served as Aruba’s director of tourism.
Back at the bridge, Sarah and her little brother Zack ran to the other side to look for the bottle that was being swept into the Gulf of Mexico by the incoming tide.
Conjecture began as to where it might end up. Pensacola? Texas? Said Zack: “I hope its somewhere we can understand their language.”