Dear Call Box: I know that the Florida Department of Transportation has been working on a project to rehabilitate the Roosevelt Boulevard bridge to Ortega. That’s made me curious about the other bridge that leads to the Ortega peninsula.
Dear B.T.: The Ortega River Bridge has what many consider the finest panoramic view of downtown Jacksonville.
View aside, it is notable as one of the busiest drawbridges in Northeast Florida due to its marine traffic. A couple of decades ago it opened roughly 15,000 times a year to allow pleasure boats from several marinas down the Ortega to get to the St. Johns River, according to Times-Union archives.
But there are fewer pleasure boats plying the river now, say long-time residents.
Yet it’s raised 7,000 times a year, still considered a high number, said Bianca Speights, public information officer for the Florida Department of Transportation.
The bridge is used by joggers, strollers, bikers, dogs walking their owners and photographers wanting to capture the view of sailboats skimming across the river, the sun shimmering on the water and the starry-night glow of lights from the city skyline.
The bridge has even hosted a proposal or two.
The present two-lane bascule bridge dates to 1927. But first there was a wooden bridge that the Ortega Co. constructed in 1908 to carry a streetcar line connecting the new Ortega development with the rest of Jacksonville. As an incentive, developers promised no taxes until 1912 and free water until 1911, according to past stories.
“You could ride the trolley line anywhere in the city for a $4 weekly pass,” the late Grace Rogers, then owner of Pier 17 Marina, said in a 1999 Times-Union story. “We used to take it to go to swim practice at the Florida Yacht Club.”
The present bridge was built in 1927, but the old span stayed for several years to carry the trolley tracks across the river.
The bridges were lift spans because of the Gress Lumber Mill on the sites of the Sadler Point Marina and the Ortega River Yacht Club Marina, Rogers said in the story.
“That mill was built in 1912,” she said. “They milled cypress and magnolia logs, most of which were logged up Black Creek and loaded on barges to come up to the mill. The mill-hands all lived in houses on what is now Roosevelt Mall.”
The Gress mill closed after it burned down in 1955.
Rogers recalled that there was no way across the river between the Ortega River Bridge and Blanding Boulevard.
“There was a road [Lake Shore and Lakeside], but it was a shell road, and they used to bring out a bulldozer every so often and grade it. It kicked up a terrible mess of dust,” she said in the story.
That problem was solved in 1938 when Roosevelt and the second bridge over the Ortega River were built.
Still, residents valued their picturesque Ortega River Bridge.
The venerable span has been rehabilitated several times. In 1996 it got a new center draw span and operating mechanisms. Its four small distinctive houses also were restored to the way they looked when it opened. One is the bridge tender’s house, one is a restroom, one houses a generator and the fourth, the modern control systems.
For the months that it was closed to road traffic, Ortega-area residents used the heavily traveled Roosevelt. In 2012 it underwent more repairs.
Putting up with the draw span is a way of life in Ortega. Many cope by getting our of their cars and watching the sailboats pass and some by socializing with other motorists.
“I think it’s just perfect in keeping with our neighborhood,” said Carter Bryan, a long-time Ortega resident. “We’ve got a lot of classic old homes. It’s a beautiful bridge. And it’s distinctive. It doesn’t have a high gradient to get over it so it’s pretty much level.”
In its closed position, Bryan said, it’s 8.5 to 9 feet above the water, depending on the tide.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128