As Shands Bridge readies for its third makeover, it still connects county its past

By Nick Blank Staff Writer
Posted 5/15/19

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On the St. Johns County side of the Shands Bridge, anglers throw bait and cast lines. It’s a place of peace on a sweltering afternoon, except for the rush of cars entering …

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As Shands Bridge readies for its third makeover, it still connects county its past


GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On the St. Johns County side of the Shands Bridge, anglers throw bait and cast lines. It’s a place of peace on a sweltering afternoon, except for the rush of cars entering the bridge.

The cars are duly ignored. There’s not much talking or much to talk about. Nathaniel Nelson, of Fleming Island, sits on a bucket catching mullet. He comes a couple of times a month for about four or five hours.

“Lots of people spend their time out here,” Nelson said. “They come from all over, Georgia, Ocala, Lake City. Everywhere.”

The drive on this 1.2-mile bridge – a foot to the left you’re in the other lane, a foot to the right and you’re in the drink – is nearing its end. The Florida Department of Transportation featured a four-lane rebuild with an estimated cost $763 million, as third segment of the First Coast Expressway.

In mid-March, when a semi jack-knifed and held traffic back for hours, Nelson stayed near the bridge for most of the day.

“I’m hoping they don’t mess up the fishing, but I know they need a better bridge to get the barges through there,” Nelson said. “It’s scary. In the 20 years I’ve been here, maybe two or three cars went off the side of the road. I looked up there [after the March crash] and thought, ‘Well, I might as well keep fishing.’”

Another fisherman, named Leonard, likes the quiet. Leonard, who makes the 90-minute drive from Ocala, said he catches about 30 mullet a day in his three hours at the bridge. The limit is 50.

The goal of the new expressway is to connect I-10 in Duval County to I-95 in St. Johns via Clay County in a hook-like shape. Construction on the new bridge, just south of the current structure, is expected in 2023.

The old bridge will remain in place for drivers to use until the new one is completed, according to FDOT Spokeswoman Sara Pleasants. She said a possibility was a removal of the middle section of the bridge to create two fishing piers at either side. Aside from safety, one of the benefits of the new bridge was extra 20 feet clearance for boats.

“One of the benefits of the new bridge is increased vertical clearance to 65 feet from the current clearance of 45 feet, which will be an improvement for marine commerce [particularly for ships accessing the Barge Port of Palatka],” Pleasants wrote in a statement. “Additionally, the new bridge will have two travel lanes in each direction [double its current capacity] as well as emergency shoulders, which the existing bridge lacks.”

The bridge was named after Alvin G. Shands, not to be confused with his brother, the namesake of UF Health Shands Hospital, state senator and county commissioner, William Shands.

Bridging Clay and St. John wasn’t an easy task. To pay for the project that cost nearly $500,000, Alvin Shands sold stock in the wooden bridge and collected between 35-50 cents as a toll. It opened in April of 1928, with a drawbridge two miles long and 20 feet wide.

A stock receipt from 1927 showed one share in the bridge was worth $100, about $1,400 today, with the Bank of Green Cove Springs acting as a trustee.

The timing wasn’t great as the Great Depression soon engulfed the nation and Shands didn’t recoup his money. The state bought the bridge in 1934 for about half the cost to build it. Tolls were then removed.

The draw span of the bridge was the source of several problems, either failing to close or falling into the river altogether, according to Clay County Archivist Specialist Vishi Garig. Prone to fires, a 150-foot section of the bridge burned in 1950. The fire was “presumed to have been started by a cigarette.”

In “Parade of Memories” by Arch Fredric Blakey, the author detailed that there were about 1,700 drivers crossing the bridge daily in 1959. Use rose during and after World War II with Clay’s strong military presence. It was time for a replacement.

“Drivers were made aware that ‘one slight error in steering’ was sufficient to ‘send their cars hurtling through the wooden railings.’ … the State Road Department agreed with County residents that a new bridge was needed,” Blakey wrote in 1976.

Several accidents and fires led officials to build a concrete structure. In the early 1960s, the current bridge was readied for commuters. It was 34 feet wide.

Hurricane Dora is mostly known for nearly derailing a 1964 Beatles concert in Jacksonville. But it also knocked out a 12-foot section of the bridge. Two high profile deaths over the edge prompted $1.16 million in railing improvements in 2004. In 2016, it closed for two days after damage to the eastern portion from Hurricane Matthew.

Alvin Shands he never saw the current bridge, Garig notes. Shands, 55, died in 1948. A Palatka Times-Herald obituary states he lived in Green Cove Springs.

“[Alvin Shands] was active in county and community affairs in Clay County. He served several terms as a member of the Clay Board of County Commissioners. He promoted the wooden bridge across the St. Johns River at Green Cove Springs, known as the “Shands Bridge.” ... He was a director of the Atlantic National Bank of Palatka and was well and favorably known here.”

Despite his skeptics – the beams in the river’s mud were a concern – and numerous incidents on the bridge before the rebuild, Shands can take credit for connecting Clay and St. Johns counties.


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