The Remarkable History of the John Ringling Causeway
You can reach Bird Key by water, or by air if you take a helicopter, but if you’re going to drive to Bird Key there’s only one way to get there: via John Ringling Causeway. It is a causeway – actually 3 causeways – with a long and famous history. These causeways are the primary reason that Bird Key ever emerged as a popular travel and home destination.
In 1925, construction began on the initial Ringling Causeway. John Ringling purchased large amounts of acreage on what are now known as Longboat Key and Lido Key. He sought to develop these barrier islands – even naming them “Ringling Isles.” Ringling soon sold more than $1,000,000 worth of lots, and he quickly realized that a bridge was needed to open the barrier islands so they would become what they are today; Bird Key's opulent waterfront communities and delightful beach neighborhoods.
On January 1, 1926, the new bridge was opened. Ringling opened the bridge in a memorable way by driving over it in his famous green Rolls-Royce. A local newspaper called it “one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in the South.” Developers established a free bus service to shuttle prospective buyers to the barrier islands and a short year later, Ringling donated the bridge to the City of Sarasota. In return, the city agreed to maintain and operate the Causeway.
By 1950, the original Causeway was not up to the task of handling the increasing traffic. Bird Key was growing and thousands of ex-GIs who had trained in southwest Florida moved there after attending college. In 1951, the State Road Board decided that a new bridge was needed to replace the original Ringling Causeway. The first bridge was torn down and the new Ringling Causeway opened in 1959 at a cost of $20,000,000.
Bird Key and the other barrier islands became exceedingly popular boating communities in the last part of the 20th century; by the year 2000, the Ringling drawbridge was opening as many as 18 times a day. Traffic was a huge problem and the situation grew increasingly aggravating and dangerous. A plan was then developed for a high-span, segmented, precast concrete Ringling Causeway. PCL Civil Constructors began work on the third John Ringling Causeway in 2001 and completed the work in 2003. The $68,000,000 bridge is a masterpiece of architectural design and is known around the world as a symbol of Sarasota. The City of Sarasota, along with private donors, gave an additional $1,500,000 to be used for landscaping. This was appropriate since the John Ringling Causeway still remains the only way to get “by land” to beautiful Bird Key.