Written by John Hildreth
For most of us 13 years is a long time. Thirteen years ago gasoline cost $1.38 per gallon, Bill Clinton was president, the college intern in my office was in elementary school, and the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine was listed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Those were difficult times for people trying to save the bridge. Advocates worked tirelessly to convince the Florida Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard to renovate the historic 1927 drawbridge rather than replace the span. The primary group, Save Our Bridge, and its president, Theresa Segal, used every approach possible to simultaneously sway public opinion, convince decision makers, correct flawed impact studies, argue legal positions, and perform their full-time jobs. It took eight years, but at last the arguments had been won, the funds appropriated, and renovation of the Bridge of Lions had begun. The $82 million project is now open to traffic -- vehicular and pedestrian. Although the namesake lions and the public park at the foot of the bridge are still being restored, the bridge is completed.
The community had a great day of celebration on St. Patrick’s Day to mark the bridge’s reopening, even with the rain. While public officials made their speeches, it really was a day for the citizens of St. Augustine. A group of 27 people were selected at random from more than 750 that applied online to be the first to walk the bridge, antique cars from every decade of the bridge’s service paraded across the bridge, and 92 year old Mrs. Isabella Ingraham Heard and her two great granddaughters cut the ribbon. Mrs. Heard was one of three young women who rode in the first float to cross the bridge as part of the 1927 opening of the Bridge of Lions.
Since the Bridge of Lions was listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997 more than 100 places have been on that list. Each one has a story of dedicated preservationists, long odds, and important history. Saving these places is hard work and it takes perseverance. Just ask Theresa Segal and her fellow laborers. However, a day like St. Patrick’s Day 2010 in St. Augustine makes it worth the effort. The City of St. Augustine is a national treasure, part gritty history and part fantasy. With the successful renovation of the Bridge of Lions, one of its main adornments and signature places can be enjoyed and used by new generations of citizens and visitors alike.
John Hildreth is the director of the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.