Centennial Spirit

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On Saturday, July 13, plan to join your friends and neighbors for a milestone celebration that will bring the entire Golden Isles community together to mark the opening of the causeway that connects Brunswick and St. Simons Island. This centennial event will echo the spirit of the July 1924 grand opening festivities for the causeway, with a parade of dignitaries, pageant, and a fish fry. A steering committee with representatives from the Glynn County Commission, the city of Brunswick, Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, Golden Isles Development Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Torras Foundation and the Golden Isles CVB have been joined by sponsors for the event that include the Brunswick Downtown Development Association, Golden Isles Development Authority, Coastal Georgia Historical Society, Keep Golden Isles Beautiful SoGlo Gallery Theatre, McGraw Event Pros, Lighthouse Trolleys, and Island Sound. It’s going to be a party for the ages! “The Torras Causeway was instrumental in connecting the communities of the Golden Isles, and we plan on honoring this strong connection as we celebrate this milestone for our community,” said steering committee member and Golden Isles CVB president and CEO Scott McQuade.

A stalwart champion of the Golden Isles community and this centennial event who was instrumental in getting high-ranking state officials, including Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, involved was former Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce President Woody Woodside. Sadly, due to Woody’s recent passing, he will not be present to see the grand pageantry of the event, but Darren Peitsch and Michael Torras of the Torras Foundation know that he’ll be there in spirit and hope that the celebration honors him and his tireless work on the community’s behalf.

Today it’s hard to imagine not having the ability to cross from the island to the mainland in a matter of minutes thanks to the road and bridges that span the marsh and rivers. However, prior to 1924, accessing the island meant a lengthy trip aboard one of the steam-powered ferries that traveled between the Port of Brunswick and the St. Simons Pier. At that time, the population on St. Simons Island was less than 1,000 permanent residents compared to approximately 14,400 residents living in the bustling City of Brunswick. Building a roadway to cross the multiple rivers and vast marshland was considered impractical at the least, if not entirely impossible. (Kind of like the arguments we hear today when the suggestion of building a second causeway is made!)

Thanks to the vision and impetus provided by Brunswick Mayor Malcolm McKinnon, a proponent of local tourism, an effort to achieve “the impossible” was underway by 1922. Mayor McKinnon asked Brunswick native and Georgia Tech graduate Fernando J. “F.J.” Torras to engineer the roadway that would connect the mainland and the island. Torras was considered the man for the job because he had spent his early career building roads and railroads through the swamps and jungles of South America.

On December 4, 1921, The Brunswick News described the project and its significance:

“Brunswick men regard the project as one of the most important highway developments in the south. It is shown that it will be of inestimable value to Brunswick situated upon one of the best harbors on the South Atlanta seaboard, and enjoying unusual railroad facilities; also to Glynn and surrounding counties, and in the way of developing the agricultural and scenic resources of St. Simon, it will be revolutionary in its effect.

It is pointed out that there is no spot in America that is richer in romance and historic interest than St. Simon Island. Upon it is the seat of the first capital of Georgia, Frederica, established by General Oglethorpe; and the site of the historic battle of Bloody Marsh, which marked the beginning of Spanish decadence on the Western Hemisphere and determined the issues as to whether the section was subject to Spanish or Anglo-Saxon rule.”

McKinnon’s vision was brought to life in a mere 14 months under Torras’ phenomenal leadership. Completed at a cost of $412,000, the 4.2-mile gravel road included a series of trestles spanning Terry Creek, Little River, and Mackay River, and two 280-foot swing bridges over Back and Frederica rivers. On its official opening date of July 11, 1924, a procession of 5,500 cars crossed the new causeway to St. Simons Island. The grand opening was accompanied by a festive parade and a grand fish fry dinner held under the oaks for 7,500 attendees.

Georgia historian Lucien Lamar Knight predicted a “new era” once Brunswick’s mainland was connected to St. Simons Island by road. His description of the island, its storied history and past inhabitants, was shared in a piece by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society for their newsletter, and is worth recounting here:

“On the Moldering tombstones of the little church-yard can be read the names of all the families who in ante-bellum days constituted the aristocracy of St. Simons Island: The Butlers, the Coupers; the Kings, the Stevenses, the Postells, the Pages, the Spaldings, the Wyllys, (the Hazzards, the Demeres, the Grants, the Frasers, the Goulds, the Armstrongs, the Caters, the Abbotts) and many others. These were all people of culture who owned extensive libraries, and handsome family carriages, who entertained on a vast scale, and in whose wine cellars, in addition to all the domestic products, could be found, the best vintages of the old world. But the old plantations are gone and the reigning families are now scattered. There can be no return of the old days, because the civilization which produced them has crumbled into the dust of dreams.

But what is to prevent a return to prosperity on St. Simon’s Island under new conditions? Nowhere is there a spot where the whispering emeralds are greener, where summers are balmier, or days are brighter, or ocean breezes more delightful. Here too, the invalid finds a stimulating cordial in the very atmosphere – an elixir of life which takes the stiffness out of his joints and puts him among the convalescents. Even as to the old fount of Bethesda, he can here come to the healing waters. When the contemplated road is built, connecting St. Simon’s Island with the Dixie Highway – watch a new era begin. Where hundred now visit the island, there will then flock myriads, to motor along the beautiful driveways which run in and out among the pendant mosses, to enjoy the music of the ocean waves, to bask in the surf, to explore the old ruins, to hunt for turtles on the beach and to angle for trout in the deep waters – in a word, to discover on our Georgia coast what the Spaniards failed to find in the land of flowers – A FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH.”

Knight was on the mark. The population of St. Simons more than doubled in the 25 years that followed. In fact, by the late 1940s, the causeway and its bridges were wearing out due to the steady increase of traffic. Glynn County commissioned the design of a new highway by the St. Louis engineering firm of Sverdrup and Parcel. In a technique touted for innovative engineering, major parts of the bridges were precast in concrete using newly developed molds instead of being poured on site. This saved both time and money, with the project was completed in just over a year, though the price tag of $2,500,000 was quite a bit higher. The new causeway replaced the original swing bridges with two vertical lift spans. It was dedicated on June 9, 1950, and given the name F.J. Torras Causeway to honor the intrepid original causeway engineer and Brunswick City Manager in 1953. Since then, the road was widened from two lanes to four, and the lift spans were replaced with fixed bridges.

Michael Torras says that a recent visit to Atlanta and discussions with representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation unscored just how truly remarkable his great-grandfather’s engineering achievement was – they told him that if the causeway was presented as a project today, it probably couldn’t be built. Just the approval process could take as much as a decade! So clearly, there’s good cause to celebrate the ten decades of easy access between St. Simons Island and Brunswick!

Regina McDuffie now holds the office that F.J. Torras held for more than 30 years, that of Brunswick City Manager. She says that this event is significant from the City’s perspective because it shows how impactful infrastructure can be. The impact on socioeconomic factors and growth aren’t usually associated with infrastructure and can often be overlooked. Here, however, the causeway is clearly one of the most significant developments that have changed our community. Because the city’s job is to maintain and provide a strong infrastructure for its residents, it’s important to show how much was accomplished when the initiative was taken, and the plan was promptly executed, to build the causeway. “I’m sure they knew when they built the causeway that it would have a major impact. I don’t think they ever thought it would be of this magnitude. Where we are today, with the sheer number of cars that cross the span every day, would have been unimaginable.”

Regina believes the centennial event planned for July is of great significance because it brings history forward and draws everyone together. She says, “It’s a celebration of 100 years of growth and change in our community and demonstrates the importance of preserving history.” Join representatives from the city, county, state, and a variety of other agencies and organizations in honoring not only the historic accomplishment, but the can-do attitude demonstrated by both of these Brunswick city managers.

Event planner Brittany Jenson says that the July 2024 event will evoke the spirit of that grand opening day, not try to recreate it. Instead of a procession of thousands of cars traveling from Brunswick to St. Simons, at 9:30 a.m., there will be a Lights and Sirens Parade with police cars, fire trucks, and other emergency vehicles from different agencies making their way from Brunswick Landing Marina to Old City Hall. The morning parade is intended as a demonstration of the community’s support for our public servants and first responders and will thrill kids of all ages. At 11:15 a.m., a small motorcade of dignitaries and VIP guests in vintage cars and trolley will make a ceremonial trip from Brunswick over the causeway to Gascoigne Bluff to join the Community Celebration taking place there.

The Community Celebration at Gascoigne Bluff will feature a Coastal Marketplace dedicated to juried arts and crafts by local artisans. The Marketplace will be open to the public at no charge. This showcase of art and fine crafts, literature, fashionable attire and accessories highlights the talents of Coastal Georgia artists. There will also be a kid zone, touch-a-truck area, and pet adoption on site for family fun.

In keeping with the spirit of the pageant that took place at the 1924 grand opening, the 2024 Centennial Celebration Pageant Committee is putting together a historic retrospective of the ten decades that followed that day (1924-2024), using video, narration, and costumed performers including members of Brunswick Actors Theatre and The Island Players highlighting local milestones and popular songs and dance from each decade. In addition to the singers, dancers, and other performers at the bandstand, people dressed in costumes and attire to reflect each decade will act as bystanders to lend a festive spirit to all the activities of the day. Pageant Committee Chair Lynda Dalton-Gallagher stresses that this is a historic event for the whole community and invites everyone to participate – businesses, churches, civic organizations, school groups, social clubs, and individuals. “We encourage as many people as possible to play a part and make this a memorable day for all.” Please contact Lynda by phone call or text to 912.230.1042 if you’d like to join the fun.

There will also be music by the Jekyll Island Big Band to help transport you to the glamorous era of the Roaring 20s! Directed by Dr. Hal Crowe, the Jekyll Island Big Band has been performing continuously for 45 years and features talented musicians with a dedication to the classic big band sound. They’ll keep your feet tapping with lively tunes that fit the occasion.

Of course there are Culinary Delights on the agenda for the day. Savor the flavors of yesteryear as culinary students from the College of Coastal Georgia present a mouth-watering fish fry, reminiscent of past celebrations. Tickets will be required for the fish fry, so please make sure to get yours! If you’d prefer something other than fish to satisfy your palate and appetite, there will a Food Truck Hub featuring Hal with tasty fare from Halyards Catering, Luigi offering food from Del Sur Artisan Eats, and the Cluck Truck from Porch SSI.

This day of nostalgia for gathering friends, families, and neighbors will conclude with closing remarks at 2:00 p.m. If you’d like a souvenir of this historic event, there will be commemorative coin available for purchase. For folks old enough to remember the 1976 bicentennial, think of this as a Golden Isles lite version. It’s going to be a very special event and community participation is key. If you’d like to volunteer, sponsor, or donate, please contact the planning committee through the website.

While the centennial celebration is sure to be momentous event for our community, it touches Michael Torras on a personal level as well. “I have relatives whom I’ve yet to meet, and they’re coming to town for the festivities which is giving my family a chance to finally meet them. However, it is bittersweet as I wish my grandfather were here to witness this; he would be beaming with pride. Similar to how the completion of the causeway united communities 100 years ago, this event is also reconnecting people. It is nice to see the community, the city and the county working together to celebrate this remarkable achievement.” Hopefully, this centennial spirit of community only strengthens over the next 100 years.

For more information, to purchase tickets to the fish fry or to donate to the celebration, visit causewaycelebration.com.

July 13 Torras Causeway Centennial Celebration Schedule

8:30 a.m. – Shop the Farmers Market at Mary Ross Waterfront Park

9:30 a.m. – Lights and Sirens Parade Celebrating our Public Servants in Downtown Brunswick (from Marina to Old City Hall)

11:00 a.m. – Community Celebration Begins at Gascoigne Bluff Park SSI – Coastal Marketplace – Pageant – Jekyll Island Big Band – Fish Fry & Food Trucks – Family Fun

11:15 a.m. – Dignitaries and VIP Guests Motorcade of Vintage Vehicles Travels Across the Causeway

11:30 a.m. – Community Welcomes the Motorcade and Singing of the National Anthem at Gascoigne Bluff Park

2:00 p.m. – Closing Remarks

Centennial Spirit originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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