“Path to Paradise” and “Highway to Heaven” are some of the local pet names for the recently revamped Sanibel Causeway. The Causeway spans San Carlos Bay to connect Sanibel Island with the Florida mainland. Until its completion in late 2007, the causeway was kindly referred to as “that long, expensive project” by many in the surrounding community of Lee County.
When the original Causeway opened for traffic in 1963, it was credited for driving the popularity and accessibility of Sanibel Island, long an community for writers, artists and naturalists. Up until that time, the only way to get to Sanibel was via a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The Sanibel Island Ferry Service consisted of four ships for passengers and cars with trips departing every 15 minutes from 7:30 am to 5:30 PM, prompting the shared refrain that “Sanibel closed at 5:30 pm.”
The iconic Kinzie brothers, Andrew and George, built the first long-lasting docks in Sanibel in 1928 after winning the desired contract to carry mail to the island on their Kinzie Brothers Steamship Line. In 1926, their ships ferried mail, ice, fresh food, and ultimately passengers, twice a week to a makeshift dock behind Bailey’s General Store. When information of Sanibel’s beauty, exotic wildlife, and abundant fishing spread, the Kinzies expanded their mail service to include the island’s visitor population. “Best,” was the first ferry followed by the addition of the “Islander.” The Kinzie vessels brought a number of illustrious visitors to the islands, including the Lindberghs, the Edisons, and the Ford family, among a steady stream of notables who quickly adopted Sanibel as their winter haven.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, Sanibel’s popularity continued to grow. When wildfires devastated the island in the 1955, discussions began on building a causeway for evacuation purposes The original causeway cost $2.73 million and ran 2.7 miles with a 26-foot clearance. When it opened in 1963, the toll to cross over to the island side was a $3 fee for cars. The tolls were later lowered to $2 for commuters.
In 2001, Lee County voted to use $37.5 million to repair and upgrade portions of the bridge which was showing decline and fractures in various places. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, construction costs skyrocketed to $134 million, prompting an increase in the toll to $6 to help finance the bill. The new Causeway opened in September 2007. At the same distance of 2.7 miles, it now includes a 70-foot clearance for navigation in addition as two man-made causeway islands located between each of the three separate bridge spans. While the islands were originally built to adjust to the new bridge design, they have morphed into a popular destination for beach-goers, fisherman, and itinerant sailors. High winds have made the causeway islands particularly popular with windsurfers and kite-surfers. The original bridges were later demolished and their remains sunk into the water to create a number of artificial reefs in the San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
While many visitors believe the bridge is a godsend in more efficiently and safely carrying them to their vacation rentals and private homes on “paradise,” the causeway’s heavenly nickname was adopted more slowly. At certain angles, captured to much entertainment in a series of photos and blogs, the bridge appears to be rising directly into Heaven.