SUNSET BEACH — For more than 50 years, it was common for someone late to an appointment or meeting in Sunset Beach to explain their tardiness with a simple excuse — "I got caught at the bridge."
Most people knew exactly what they meant, having been in that predicament themselves a time or two.
If they didn't time their travel just right or were delayed by the summer season crowds, people often got caught at the iconic one-lane swing bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, which opened every hour on the hour since the 1950s for boat traffic. In many ways, that was the town's charm, where the only way on and off the island managed to slow its pace every 60 minutes.
When the bridge was open, cars would gather in lines on either side, waiting patiently — or impatiently, depending on their plans — for the sturdy structure to slowly but surely reconnect and resume traffic flow.
This month marks a decade since the bridge opened for the last time on Jan. 7, 2011. In November 2010, the N.C. Department of Transportation completed and opened its answer to a more modern successor that brought people to and from the island without delay — the 65-foot-tall Mannon C. Gore Bridge.
Although it has been a decade since the last vehicle passed over the old bridge, that hasn't stopped people from tossing out the area's signature excuse every now and then.
"It was certainly a convenient excuse, but it doesn't work so well anymore," said Ann Bokelman, a co-founder of the Old Bridge Historical Society, which salvaged the main section of the bridge and its bridge tender building as a museum. "People still use it as an excuse though, and it always gives us all a good laugh."
On the island today, there remains nostalgia for the modest but community-defining bridge, even as its much taller replacement — which it now sits in the shadow of — has introduced an undeniably more convenient means of getting on and off Sunset Beach.
That convenience, however, hasn't been universally loved. Some homeowners and residents are concerned the non-stop flow of traffic has crowded and congested the quiet beach. Even before it was approved in the late 2000s, the very notion of a bigger bridge worried and rallied some residents, who were fearful they would lose the slow-paced town they had come to love.
"There was a fear among some people that wanted the island to remain small, quaint and family oriented," Bokelman said. "Traffic would get congested, businesses and restaurants would spring up everywhere, and there would be more day trippers. There were a lot of concerns."
With the passage of a decade, however, some concerns have proven unfounded and others have come to fruition. But many residents and old bridge devotees have still found their views softened on the winding concrete bridge that took its place.
"I was and am an advocate of the old bridge, and I love what it stood for," said Dave Nelson, a 30-year resident, realtor and owner of Sunset Inn. "It was a very quaint piece of our town and, just by its very nature, it separated us from the rest of the world. But you have to be realistic that it wasn't going to last forever and I don't mind the new bridge."
A history lesson
Today, the relocated old Sunset Beach Bridge sits just west of the new bridge, which was named for the town's founder and the engineer behind its first swing structure across the water — Mannon C. Gore.
Gore was a farmer by birth, who never made it past the sixth or eighth grade — depending on the account. Still, he managed to build an engineering mind for himself and an impressive service record in World War II.
After the war, Gore came home looking to broaden his horizons and bought a sandy undeveloped island formed by the digging of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1930s. He snagged the land that would become Sunset Beach for $55,000.
It was a risky and costly move, considering it would require development and management, but Gore was resolute in his vision. He sold the farm and opened a dredging business, which served the dual purpose of helping him make money around the region while also dredging a path to the island's future.
"Like most farmers, he was an intuitive engineer who could look at things and know how they worked because that was the only way stuff was going to get fixed," Bokelman said. "He designed and opened the first bridge in 1958, and made it from a World War II self-propelled surplus barge."
With its first access point, the town took off. Gore began dabbling in real estate to sell property for aspiring residents, and even operated the bridge himself for the first few years — as it sat next to the house he built on the water.
He had done such a good job at building a bridge — figuratively and literally — to a new Cape Fear destination, the state decided to take it over in 1961 due to the level of traffic it was now serving. It quickly built a new bridge remarkably similar to Gore's, only changing out the barge base for pontoons.
Over time, as more people discovered the island oasis at the tip of southeastern North Carolina, the fondness for the one-lane bridge grew. As much as the ocean, it became part of the lore and lure of Sunset Beach.
Nelson visited for the first time when he was 10 years old in 1965. His grandfather had a place on the island and visited annually until he moved here permanently in 1990.
"The first time I crossed the bridge, I had an epiphany this was where I was meant to be," he said. "That's what the bridge means to me."
Bokelman had been vacationing locally since 1995 and retired here in 2007. She said every summer trip wasn't just about reuniting with the beach but about leaving the world behind at the bridge crossing.
"We just thought it was so charming," she said. "Going across that bridge each summer reminded you that you were going to a different place with a different mindset where you weren't working. Now for people who were working and traveling across it daily, you can understand the frustration."
The good and the bad
This is where many longtime residents and visitors have found themselves in the past decade — reconciling their fond memories of the old bridge with the new convenience (and drawbacks) of its successor.
For decades, the town resisted any whiff of change to the bridge, making the case expanding its capabilities would open the floodgates to an island community that is only about three miles long.
But eventually, the island's growth put strains on the bridge. Emergency services were at the mercy of its opening timetable and, at one point, Bokelman said the town's largest fire truck couldn't cross at low tide because of the weight it put on the ramps.
It was for these and other reasons, including continued maintenance and traffic delays, that state transportation officials removed the bridge in January 2011. It was pushed just yards up the waterway, where a 50-ton crane delicately lifted and placed it in its current spot at the museum.
Sunset Beach Mayor Shannon Phillips said just the peace of mind that emergency services have a dependable means on and off the island is a positive benefit of the new bridge.
"If nothing else, it is a blessing that if something happens on the island, we can now get help out there for our people," he said. "Before, if there was an emergency and the bridge was open, people could have lost their lives waiting."
Yet, Nelson said it was the lack of access that kept people away.
"A lot of people would probably go to Ocean Drive, Cherry Grove or Ocean Isle Beach because they were scared of being stranded on our beach by the bridge," he said.
It's for that reason day trippers weren't often seen at Sunset Beach, only those willing to wait in line at the bridge knowing a multi-day stay was waiting on the other side.
"I love the old bridge because of that," said Sheryl Belk, who has owned a house in Sunset Beach with her husband since 1992. "No one is going to sit in line for hours if they didn't have a good reason to get across."
Critics of the new bridge noted day trippers arrived by 2011 as they had cautioned, filling parking lots and lining streets with cars in the busy summer months.
The debate over a new bridge divided the Belk household a decade ago. Sheryl, a career educator, fought against it while her husband welcomed the idea. He bristled at always being delayed by the swing bridge and therefore late for tee times at the mainland golf course, while she wanted to protect the sense of community and tranquility.
"I still love Sunset Beach, but I don't feel as safe on the island," she said. "Parking is always packed during the summer, and cars are up and down the streets. On the beach, it is so overcrowded because it is easier to get there now.
"People have parked in our driveway without permission, and we've had people use our outdoor showers and leave the water on. That just never used to happen. I think there is a little more boldness in the people coming over to the island now. There is a sense of entitlement."
Big bridge, little change
Ask others and they will say the town hasn't been affected wholly by the new bridge, but rather expanded its horizons just as Gore did when he purchased the land in the 1950s.
"It has changed the town for the better," said Phillips, Sunset Beach's mayor. "We still have our precious beach. I know some of the older residents are disappointed, but for things to continue to blossom, it has to grow."
As far as residents go, the new bridge hasn't exponentially changed the size of the town.
Sunset Beach's population spiked by nearly 900 people between 2009 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census — but that was a full year before the old bridge was retired. Since 2010, the town's population has only grown from 3,571 to 3,952 in 2018.
Many of those who have made peace with the new bridge agree that every area beach has grown in the past decade, as the Cape Fear's reputation has skyrocketed for new visitors and residents. Brunswick County also remains one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, something not all that dependent on the status of the Sunset Beach Bridge.
Phillips, who has lived year round in Sunset Beach for three years, said he still talks to people who don't like the new bridge.
"I always tell those people that unless you are a Gore, then you or your family had to come here from somewhere else at some point, so why do you want to keep others from doing the same?" he said. "A town should be a welcoming place."