NORTH KINGSTOWN, RI (AP) Since the Jamestown Bridge first opened, Rhode Islanders have alternately embraced it as an enduring landmark or loathed its narrow lanes and car-shaking winds that always seemed worse on the see-through grating high above Narragansett Bay.
Shirley Nunes-Thornton sat in Narragansett and remembered smelling the sea air while cruising over the bridge and admiring the view. A short walk away, Carleen Carlson recalled the fear she felt crossing the span on her future husband’s motorcycle.
“It’s scary, let me tell you,” Carlson said. “You felt like you’re riding in the air.”
Both women were among hundreds of people April 18 who watched from the shoreline as a rolling flash of explosives severed the bridge’s 1,100-ft. long center truss and wiped out part of the state’s common history. The majority of the bridge will be gone by November.
“It’s sentimental. I’m kind of sad to see it going,” Nunes-Thornton said.
After a countdown, 350 explosive charges exploded in unison, rattling windows in Jamestown and breaking the truss into 20-ft. chunks that splashed into Narragansett Bay below.
Before the demolition, crews removed much of the pavement and gradually weakened the bridge by making a series of cuts through the girders. It laid 75 lbs. of explosives at 20-ft. intervals in the bridge’s center span, where the upper supports reached 240 ft., according to Edmund Parker Jr., chief engineer of the Department of Transportation.
The Jamestown Bridge closed in 1992 when the sleeker, faster, taller Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge was completed 100 ft. beside it. The new bridge was closed during the explosion, but reopened shortly after inspectors checked it for damage.
A few hundred spectators braved chilly temperatures and whipping winds to watch the demolition from a rocky coastline at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus. Camped out in beach chairs, armed with blankets and binoculars, cameras and coffee, the crowd packed the beach to experience what some dubbed a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“How often do you get to see a bridge demolished?” asked Raymond Blais, of East Greenwich, who admitted having a soft spot in his heart for the rickety old bridge as he sat with his sister before the demolition.
People cheered at the lightning-quick flash accompanying the detonation and became more excited seconds later at the thundering boom that sent the bridge crumbling into the water.
Before the bridge opened in 1940, Conanicut Island’s only link to the rest of the state was an unreliable ferry system that often did not run in bad weather. Built just before the United States entered World War II, the bridge also served a military purpose, linking the Navy bases, artillery guns and radio outposts that defended Narragansett Bay.
The span was steep and narrow — at just 26 ft. wide, it had only two lanes and no breakdown lane. Some people refused to cross it.
“We all had that terrifying feeling when you look down, and you just know that grate is going to give way,” said Rep. James Langevin, D-RI, who called crossing the bridge a rite of passage for new drivers.
In 1969, the Newport Bridge, now the Pell Bridge, opened between Aquidneck Island and Conanicut Island, providing the first crossing east from Conanicut. The two bridges together crossed the bay at its southern end.
The pieces of the destroyed span will be removed from the bay by a crane, Parker said.
Demolition crews have far more work to bring the entire bridge down. Still standing are 2,000-ft. spans on both sides of the center, as well as concrete support columns. Next month, crews will use explosives to remove the remaining spans, and in June, four of the largest piers in the center of the bridge that once held up the roadway will be demolished.
After that, remaining pieces of the bridge will be removed with small blasts and cranes. All told, 6,000 tons of structural steel and 43,000 tons of concrete will be removed, according to the Department of Transportation.
The steel will be recycled and the concrete will be used to make artificial reefs in three places south of Newport.