Meet the Founders of The Old Bridge Preservation Society in Sunset Beach, N.C., Chris Wilson, Ann Bokelman and Karen Dombrowski

By Leslie Moore

Meet the Founders of The Old Bridge Preservation Society in Sunset Beach, N.C., Chris Wilson, Ann Bokelman and Karen Dombrowski

For over fifty years, visitors and residents to the island of Sunset Beach, North Carolina, made their way slowly over a one-lane wooden pontoon bridge to reach this peaceful, slow-moving beach community. Island life revolved around the opening and closing of the bridge, which took 15 minutes to accomplish. Dinner plans off island were always prefaced with the question: “Want to go before the bridge opens or after?” Vacationers hearing the “thunk-thunk” of their tires on the bridge would release the cares of everyday life and know that vacation had truly begun.

But, as idyllic and picturesque as the bridge was, there were safety concerns. Emergency vehicles might get stuck on the mainland while a sick or injured islander lost precious minutes that could conceivably cost a life. Residents could become stranded during a major hurricane and be left alone to face the wrath of nature on a small, unprotected strip of land. And, the hands of time had taken their toll on the last pontoon bridge still in operation on the East Coast – each year it sank just a little lower into the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. The beautiful, new, Mannon C. Gore Bridge was built, opening on November 11, 2010, sailing majestically over the waterway – giving residents a safe and secure way to travel back and forth.

But, three women who love Sunset Beach, Chris Wilson, Ann Bokelman and Karen Dombrowski were determined to preserve the Old Bridge and its history for future generations. Together they formed The Old Bridge Preservation Society, and through their efforts, the Old Bridge and Tender House were relocated to a lovely, shaded piece of property within sight of the new bridge. Today, The Old Bridge Museum and Interpretive Center site is open to the public with periodic events highlighting the history and charm of this small sea island. The museum itself will be open to the public as soon as the restoration is complete.

How did you all get involved with the preservation of the Old Bridge and Tender House?

Karen: I’m originally from Buffalo, New York, vacationed here for many years and moved here permanently three years ago. Before I moved, I was involved with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservatory and have a heart for preservation. It was truly serendipity that Ann, Chris and I sat near each other at a Sunset Beach town meeting about the fate of the Old Bridge. When we learned it was set to be demolished, we knew we had to do something. We thought we would save a bridge, but it quickly became a labor of love.

Ann: I moved here from Richmond, Virginia, and have lived here for five years, but, like Karen, have vacationed in Sunset Beach for years. Bridges connect places, but the Old Bridge connects people – past and present. This bridge represented our island and a simple, non-commercial life for many years. We are trying to tell the story of Sunset Beach, and are collecting stories of what the bridge has meant to people through the years – weddings that were late, proposals that were made on the bridge – we’re keeping history alive.

Chris: I moved here six years ago from Dublin, Ohio, but am a native of Rochester, New York. The three of us have become kindred spirits through a love for our island and the Old Bridge. We had no idea how we were going to preserve it – but with lots of help we saved it for future generations! Karen helped us with a contact at English Construction, the construction company that was building the new bridge, and they helped this dream take shape. We knew the construction company would actually own the Old Bridge after the new one was complete – and they sold it to us for $1! Then, bless them, they moved it to our site – free of charge. It was an amazing feat to move the Old Bridge and Tender House with very little damage to either. We also owe a huge debt to Ronnie Holden, who offered us the use of three properties, our choice, for the site of the museum. Ronnie and his wife, Clarice have been wonderful supporters of our mission.

Karen: The three of us spent time with the last Bridge Tenders and learned how the bridge operated, as well as many wonderful stories. We also have the logs that were kept by the Bridge Tenders. They recorded each and every boat that came through, along with the weather and time of day. These interviews were recorded and will be shown at the museum when the restoration of the Tender House is complete.

Ann: During the final stages of building the new bridge and moving the old one, the three of us were on call 24/7 for meetings with various people involved with the project. It has been a huge learning experience and a tremendous amount of work.

Chris: Last summer a woman was riding her bike by our site and got so excited when she saw the Old Bridge she fell off of her bike! Another person started to cry when she realized we had saved this piece of island history. People stop by and tell us stories and have their picture taken by the Old Bridge. A family reunion group of around 40 people even stopped by for a group photo.

Ann: We have a membership society for people who want to be a part of our mission, and a special Junior Bridge Tender membership for children, who are an important part of our group. We have children out here at every event – they help with fundraisers, give tours and record stories. It’s very rewarding to see how excited they are about the history of our community.

Meet the Founders of The Old Bridge Preservation Society – Photo 2

What’s coming up for the Old Bridge?

On Saturday, April 14, we’re having a fundraiser at Silver Coast Winery. “An Evening of Fabulous Music” will be at 7 pm with entertainment by Brunswick Big Band and vocalist, Linda Ladrick. Tickets are $25 and will support the continued restoration of the Old Bridge and Tender House. Tickets are available on our website.

We are moving forward with the restoration and programming for visitors, and just finished touching up the bridge with the original type of silver paint used by the state and have had helical anchors installed. We will eventually have changing exhibits in the Tender House as the restoration continues. A local engineer volunteered to build a scale model, 12′ x 12′, of the Old Bridge and Tender House and his presentations always draw a crowd.

This is a fantastic community.

Learn more at www.oldbridgepreservationsociety.org or find Old Bridge Preservation Society on Facebook.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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