Prior to the first bridge being built across East Pass to connect Destin to Santa Rosa Island, Destin could only be reached by boat. In this month’s History Mystery we will explore when the first bridge was approved by the Florida State Road Department, when construction began, exactly when it was completed and how it changed Destin to be the tourist mecca we know today.
When the East Pass was discovered by New Londoner Leonard Destin in 1851, it was the perfect location for a village dedicated to fishing. The East Pass allowed a fisherman living there to easily fish in nearby Choctawhatchee Bay or use East Pass to sail into the Gulf of Mexico, which was teaming with fish. Santa Rosa Sound was a perfect sheltered water highway for the fishermen to take those fish to market in nearby Pensacola, using their fishing sloops.
In the 1900s, times changed and the favored mode of transportation became the automobile. Destin was out of reach to everybody, except those with a water vessel. Times were changing and in the early 1930s change was also about to come to sleepy Destin, Florida, too.
State Road 115, which later became U.S. Highway 98, was being expanded from Apalachicola to Pensacola. An important area where a road and two bridges needed to be built was from Panama City to Gulf Breeze, which included a bridge over East Pass and a bridge over Santa Rosa Sound at Camp Walton (today Fort Walton Beach).
On Oct. 19, 1932, the Florida State Road Department minutes contain a motion that, “The Chairman is hereby authorized to make application to the War Department for their approval of the construction of a bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay between Santa Rosa Island and Moreno Point, Road 115, approximately 6 miles east of Camp Walton, Okaloosa County, Florida.” The Florida State Road Department thought that they should seek approval from the War Department because at that point the land was still owned by the War Department, as Moreno Point Military Reservation.
Construction on the East Pass Bridge was begun in April 1933. The Vincennes Bridge Company, based in Vincennes, Indiana, was in charge of the bridge construction. Vincennes Bridge was the premier bridge builder at that time. It was founded in 1898 and by the 1920s Vincennes was building 1,200 bridges a year. The company ceased to exist in 2006 when it was folded into the Wabash Steel Company.
Many of the Destin fishermen worked on both State Road 115 and the East Pass Bridge to supplement their fishing income. Two of those fishermen/bridge workers were the author’s father-in-law, Clarence Lee Marler and mother-in-law’s (Gladys Shirah Marler) brother, Roy D. “Monk” Shirah. Monk Shirah quit working on the bridge and went back to fishing when he saw a fellow workman crushed to death while working on the bridge. He realized that bridge-building was dangerous work.
The East Pass Bridge was 3,210 feet long and was completed in April 1935 at a cost of $324,656.30 according to the records of the State Road Department of Florida. The federal government paid $208,415.03 of the cost, while the state of Florida paid $116,241.27.
Once the first East Pass Bridge and State Road 115 were completed through Destin, the small village that could only be reached by boat was now accessible by automobile. So “outsiders” for the first time could drive their automobiles and visit the small fishing village. At this same time, the War Department was trying to sell all of what is Destin today, as it had been deemed surplus by the War Department in 1926.
It took over 10 years for the War Department to interest locals and outsiders to buy the land that had been Moreno Point Military Reservation. One of the major improvements that made those land sales feasible was the building of State Road 115 and the East Pass Bridge which, for the first time allowed automobiles to drive to Destin.
H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940 and DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum, in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, Magnolia House Gifts at Grand Boulevard, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.