A section of the landmark Old Seven Mile Bridge, paralleling the famous Overseas Highway, has just reopened in the Florida Keys – once again allowing visitors to use it for cycling, walking, running, watching sunrises and sunsets and to access the historic island of Pigeon Key.
The frequently photographed 2.2-mile section of the bridge reopened earlier this month following a $44 million renovation that began in 2017 and was completed several months ahead of schedule.
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 renovated section is the gateway to Pigeon Key, a tiny ‘time capsule’ island nestled beneath the old bridge that was once home to about 400 workers constructing the railroad.
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.
In 1938, the original railroad bridge was converted to carry cars. Then 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 with locals and visitors alike.
Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, noted that the historic bridge was used by nearly a quarter of a million people in the year prior to the start of the renovation project. "It really is more of a linear park, where people can come out 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 centre, 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."
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.