MARATHON (CBSMiami/FKNB) - A section of the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge, paralleling the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, reopened Wednesday in the Middle Keys so residents and visitors can once again use it for cycling, walking, running, rollerblading, watching sunrises and sunsets and to access Pigeon Key.
Florida Department of Transportation officials staged a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Marathon side of the oft-photographed 2.2-mile span following a $44 million renovation that began in 2017 and was completed several months ahead of schedule.
The project was part of a 30-year agreement with a budget of $77 million ratified between the Keys' Monroe County, Marathon municipal officials and the Florida Department of Transportation to fund restoration along with a maintenance program to ensure the landmark's preservation.
Nicknamed "Old Seven," the bridge was built as part of railroad magnate Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad that was completed in January 1912, connecting the Keys with each other and mainland Florida for the first time. The 2.2-mile span is the gateway to historic Pigeon Key, a tiny island nestled beneath the old bridge that was once home to about 400 workers constructing the railroad.
"The Old Seven Mile Bridge is very important to the Keys, the history of the Keys, and a viaduct to get to Pigeon Key, which in itself is beautiful, but the bridge itself is over 100 years old," said Roman Gastesi, the Monroe County administrator. "It's something that we've been able to get together and collaborate with the city of Marathon, with the state of Florida, and get it rehabbed like it is, and it's been a great project."
Restoration work included structural steel and spalling and bridge joint system repairs; new decking, pedestrian and bicycle handrails; and other physical enhancements to make the 2.2-mile span safer for recreational use.
"What made the project challenging was that it is a historic bridge, and that we had to restore the bridge to the same aesthetic fabric as the original," said project manager Tony Sabbag, a Florida Department of Transportation contractor.
In 1938, the original railroad bridge was converted to carry automobiles. In 1982, the new Seven Mile Bridge (actually 6.79 miles long and one of the world's longest segmental bridges) debuted alongside the historic one and the old bridge's steel swing span, which had facilitated marine traffic, was removed.
The retired "Old Seven" evolved primarily into a recreation area that proved extremely popular.
"Nearly five years ago now, when they did close down the bridge, that year prior nearly a quarter of a million people came out to use this bridge," said Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation. "It really is more of a linear park, where people can come out and recreate and go biking, walking, cycling, running, take a look at all the marine resources whether it be spotting turtles, sharks, rays, tarpon ... it's just an unbelievable experience for individuals and families to come out and take advantage of."
Today Pigeon Key serves as a historic and educational center, with a railroad museum and original structures that date back to the early 1900s Flagler era, when the bridge leading out to it was being built.
"As you come onto Pigeon Key, you really do step back in time," McKinnon said. "It's fantastic to walk around, see these original structures, be on the same ground that these men 100-plus years ago were on."
He added that a new 60-passenger tram to take visitors back and forth to Pigeon Key is expected to be operational this spring.
Although vehicular traffic on the restored bridge is prohibited, an adjacent parking lot has been modified to accommodate up to 35 parked vehicles.
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