The Story of the 17th Street Causeway Bridge

The Southeast 17th Street bridge is a bascule drawbridge located just north of the Port Everglades cut. The causeway goes from the westside off US1/Federal Highway eastward over the ICW and twists northward becoming A1A along the Fort Lauderdale beach. The western approach is known as the Commodore Brook Causeway while the actual bridge is named after Clay Shaw. The State of Florida maintains her along with other ICW crossing bridges.

Vertical Clearance: 55′ (at high tide)
Horizontal Clearance: 125′
Depth: ~20 ft
Tide Shift: 2 ft every 6 hours with 2 knot current
Year Built: 1998-2002
Traffic Lanes: 4
Openings: Half and whole hour
Closed: 7:30-9:00 AM and from 4:30 to 6:00 PM, M-F during rush hour traffic
Tender: VHF Channel 9
State maintained: (954) 486-1400

In 1925, locals started on the original south side causeway, later known as Jackknife Bridge. The causeway was located north of the current bridge because the cut was further north near what is now Bahia Mar. Port Everglades was instead a lake, Lake Mabel. W.F. Morang let the contract out of his Lauderdale Harbors (Rio Vista Isles) development to Champion Bridge Company and Powell Brothers. According to Merrilyn of the Fort Lauderdale Historical society, developers planned to connect the bridge but never did. She says, “Actually the bridge planned to come out from 15th. They built just the spans not the approach ramps to the bridge. The bridge was just out there in the Intracoastal unattached to land.”

Then, months before completion, the Hurricane of 1926 blew through. The economy collapsed leaving a true bridge to no where. Actually, the hurricane damaged the bridge and left the remnants out in the middle of the ICW as a navigation hazard. Merrilyn continues, “And, it stayed like that for many years. Finally, somebody decided it was a navigation hazard. They removed it around WWII. So after the crash and hurricane for many years, the spans just stood out there. A colorful aspect of Ft. Lauderdale history. A real bridge to no where.” The Army removed the bridge in the 1940′s. The remnants were a warning against excessive optimism but also a testament to forward thinking. A symbol of the past and future, the damaged bridge to no where laid out hopefully and hopelessly in the middle of the ICW. Locals called the bridge Old Jackknife.

The inspiration for the second bridge, Commodore Brook, moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1925. Born in England, he had come over to America and become a successful outdoor advertiser in New York, founding Brook of Brooklyn. He came to Fort Lauderdale to retire, one of the first of many New Yorkers to retire in South Florida. He sailed down the ICW on his sailboat Cilo with “10 tons of paint as ballast” according to the article Commodore Brook Ranks High Among City’s Benefactors. “With the paint, Brook became the city’s first one man publicity committee. He used all of the paint for bulletin boards, street signs, and other advertising matter for the city.”

In the 1930′s and 1940′s, Brook was involved in many city shaping plans. He loved the water and pursued improving public access to Fort Lauderdale’s copius water resources.

For swimming, he persuaded the city to spend $135,000 to construct the municipal swimming pool at the beach. The Casino Pool stood east of the current International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) pool. The saltwater, Olympic sized pool attracted and nurtured a generation of elite swimmers placing Fort Lauderdale among the hot spots for competitive swimming.

For the beach, Brook helped to create and keep the unique, Fort Lauderdale beach free from condominiums and open to the public. Unlike anywhere else, A1A abuts the strip of beach from Sunrise Boulevard past Las Olas up to the Yankee Clipper. He fought for the Sunrise public rightaway which secured the uninterupted strip. Today, the Fort Lauderdale beach is a pleasant drive and thriving economic spot.

For sailing, Brook founded the Lauderdale Yacht Club. He raced and cruised here in the yachting capital of the world. For the club and all locals, he fought to make the ICW a public thoroughfare. When he cruised on Cilo, he acutely learned about the private tolls along the ICW. Brook fought for and won the public usage of the ICW. Because of Commodore Brook, anyone can freely travel Fort Lauderdale’s famous waterways.

Commodore Brook died in 1946. So now, with the remnants of the first failed southside bridge removed, with the champion of Fort Lauderdale’s waterways gone, with the waterways publicly owned, with the growing population, the stage was set.

In the early 1950′s with increasing traffic on Las Olas, the only bridge across, Fort Lauderdale restarted planning for a south side bridge. Claude Marikle writes about the preceding debate, “The [17th Street bridge] holds the number one spot on Broward County’s ten million dollar bridge program.” Las Olas merchants outcried the completion of the throughfare, but most agreed that for the growth of Fort Lauderdale as a whole eventually they needed a southside beach access bridge. Estimated at $1.697 million, Governor Charley E. James gave approval. The bridge would have 4 lanes, be 997′ long, 100′ horizonal clearance, and 28′ vertical.

In July 1954, Industrial Construction Co. undertook the massive project. Doyle McQuenie writes that the bridge would take a half million pounds of reinforcing steel, 883 pound on the approach, 41 acres of land, dug 110,000 yards of muck, 100,000 square yards into road beds, and 300,000 cubic yards to fill embankments.

In 1956, they opened a month ahead of schedule. They named her the Commodore Brook Memorial Causeway after the aforementioned famous Fort Lauderdale founder. The bridge was done, but roadwork, R.H. Wright Construction Co., took another two weeks to finish the road approaches. The bridge was the completion of a long held ambition for Fort Lauderdale according to Douglas McQuarrie. “Today’s monumental project, fully completed to withstand any hurricane is, in retrospect, a tribute to the foresight of the developers in the mid-20′s before the land boom bubble burst.”

The biggest worry was if the 28′ clearance would be enough. They worried about too many openings stopping traffic. State Law required fishing trawlers to have outriggers on hinges to alleviate the worry. They turned out to be right but would manage to endure often openings for the next 42 years.

From 1956 to the 1980′s, the Commodore Brook Causeway satisfied the growing population. Then, in the mid 1980′s, bridge repairs and the corresponding closures kept the bridge’s age warily in the public mind.

In July 1986, lightning damaged the bridge. While not unusual, the lightning froze the bridge in the upright position. Later that year in October, a Haitian freighter struck the 17th bridge. The bridge had no apparent damage while the freighter had a nasty 2 foot gash in her hull. She had swerved to avoid hitting an oncoming barge. In 1987, they openly looked into the idea of a tunnel. In 1991, a locking mechanism broke, closing the bridge for a week and clogging traffic.

Along with the problems, the real motivation was the constant opening. As originally feared, the 28′ opening set the bridge too low requiring openings every half and whole hour. In a constant battle, either waterway traffic backed up or land traffic. As Brian with the DOT says, “We don’t generally raise bridges. This impacts local businesses.” The 17th was a special case. It wasn’t about the age or boaters but to reduce traffic congestion.

In the 1990′s, many sides argued over what to do. Some didn’t mind the current bridge and considered the problem simply seasonal. Only for 5 months in the winter did the congestion get bad enough to warrant replacement. Others argued for a fixed bridge at 85′. But not only would such a height limit big sailboats and economically important cruise ships, workers would have to significantly alter the bridge approaches to attain such a height. Still others argued for the tunnel. But not only would a tunnel would be much more expensive, a tunnel would limit the draft of passing vessels to 12′. In addition as DOT notes, “With a tunnel, we would have had to change the approaches.” None of these were economically viable.

In 1995 after ten years of debate, three dozen local leaders chose a contemporary, 55′ clearance drawbridge. Many lambasted the design as bulky. Other claimed the keeled support structure would become a landmark like the Golden Gate bridge is to San Fransisco. The estimated cost was $37 million plus a $5 million temporary bridge to keep traffic going smoothly. These prices would go up.

By 1997, a plan fomented. Chief among the challenges was to keep the existing traffic flow operational while building the new bridge. They could not simply demolish the old and build a new. They had to put in a temporary bridge south of the existing causeway.

The DOT wanted the project done quickly. Traylor Construction won the job with a bit for $62 million for 1,000 days to finish. They planned to work 24 hours a day and would get a bonus of $2 million if they finished by 2000.

Quickly, they had problems. In November 1998, a span in the temporary bridge cracked. Traffic had to reroute for 6 days. They managed to patch the crack. In March 1999, they gouged a sewage pipe, polluting the ICW and forcing the beaches to close. Days later, OSHA fined Traylor for safety violations. Dramatically in 2000, with the first bridge in final testing, the span lowered to 45 degrees then crashed down cracking, bending, and sheering parts of the span. The brakes had failed. If you ask insiders about the failures they won’t point any fingers. “I don’t know whose fault it. I wasn’t involved. Yes, the construction had problems. But, nobody airs their dirty laundry in the DOT. Everybody makes mistakes,” says Brian.

Now with the first side finished, they torn down the old bridge and dismantled the temporary bridge. For two more years they struggled through problems. Traylor missed the bonus and instead ran two years late, infuriating the DOT. Despite more opening glitches, the bridge opened officially on April 7, 2002.

Her name is the Clay E Shaw Memorial bridge after the congressman who worked hard to fund the project. She has smoothed traffic flow and has been structurally flawless. She opens on the half and whole hours with 55′ clearance and greatly reduced openings. As Brian from the DOT notes, “I’m biassed. I pass over twice a day. but the new bridge has really helped. It opens on the same half and hour as the old bridge but now a lot of times the bridge doesn’t open. Lots of times it does but more often it doesn’t. If no [boats are] waiting it doesn’t open.” The old causeway was almost guaranteed to open. The DOT expects the Clay E. Shaw bridge to last 75 years.

To go across the bridge either take A1A south which curves. Or take US1 and turn onto SE 17th street, Commodore Brook Causeway. By boat go into the Port Everglades cut and turn north. Or follow the ICW through the Port Everglades area.

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