The Bridges of Charleston County

Bryan McElveen

The very icon of Charleston is the silouette of the Ravenel Bridge, symbolizing a culture of connection: our history, our culture, and obviously our roads and paths.
From the awe-inspiring cable-stayed spans soaring above the Cooper River, to historic swing bridges that have seen everything – each crossing offers a glimpse into the city’s growth, connecting not only concrete and steel but also the hearts of its inhabitants.

Whether you’re an ardent history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply a curious wanderer, Charleston’s bridges are sure to captivate your imagination and reveal the extraordinary spirit of this treasured coastal gem.

An upward view of one tower of the Ravenel Bridge with lights shining on the tower and cables against a dark blue sky.

These are the bridges that define Charleston, discovering the stories etched into their very foundations, and the profound impact they continue to have on the lives of those who call this charming city their home.

Steeped in rich history and architectural intrigue, these iconic structures serve as vital lifelines, uniting the mainland with surrounding islands and neighboring communities. As silent witnesses to the city’s evolution, Charleston’s bridges stand as enduring symbols of progress, resilience, and the seamless blending of past and present.

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is an iconic cable-stayed bridge that spans the Cooper River, connecting Downtown Charleston with Mount Pleasant.
This bridge was completed in 2005 to replace the aging Grace and Pearman truss bridges completed in 1929 and 1966.
The Ravenel Bridge stands as one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the Western Hemisphere, with its main span of 471 meters soaring between the two diamond towers of 175 meters in height.

The Ravenel Bridge is an essential link for daily commuters and includes a pedestrian and bicycle lane that is a popular destination for joggers, cyclists, and tourists seeking unparalleled breathtaking panoramic views of the Charleston skyline and Charleston Harbor.

On the Mount Pleasant side of the bridge a number of luxury condominiums and homes are situated with commanding views of the beautiful double diamond span over the Cooper River.

Ashley River Memorial Bridge

The Ashley River Memorial Bridge is a pair of historic drawbridges connecting Downtown Charleston to its first off-peninsula suburb, West Ashley. The Ashley River supports mostly recreational boat traffic, so the drawbridges open only for the occasional sailboat.
Its original structure was completed in 1926 with gothic towers overlooking and controlling the drawbridge’s mechanics. A second nearly identical span was completed alongside the original in 1961.

Both of these drawbridges crossing the Ashley River were unfortunately designed exclusively for automobiles. While efforts to convert a lane on the 1961 Legare Bridge failed, a hard-fought movement to construct a separate third span for pedestrians and bicyclists has now been approved and funded.
When completed this will be the first pedestrian cable-stayed swing bridge in the United States.

Ben Sawyer Bridge

The connection from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island was for many years only a light rail bridge across the Pitt Street Bridge. Vehicular traffic was opened to the island in 1945 with the completion of a swiveling roadway built above and parallel to the railway.
Positioned above the Intracoastal Waterway, the Ben Sawyer Bridge must permit frequent boat traffic, and its swing mechanism parts the span to allow sailboats and other tall traffic to pass through. 

The Ben Sawyer Bridge was for many years the only link to the mainland for Sullivan’s Island the Isle of Palms, a dilemma highlighted by the harrowing evacuation of the islands during Hurricane Hugo
The bridge has since been supplemented by the Isle of Palms Connector.

Don Holt Bridge

This imposing mesh of steel glides over the Cooper River to connect North Charleston with Mount Pleasant. Its structure appears as geometrically interesting triangles and diamonds assembled in three truss spans, all painted in a striking cobalt blue.

The Don Holt was built in 1992 as a critical component in the creation of the Lowcountry’s beltway – Interstate 526.
This connection over the upper Cooper River served two major developments: first it connected Mount Pleasant – as well as the largest container port in South Carolina – to the Interstate Highway System.
Next it became the catalyst for the development of Daniel Island – which transformed in the 1990s from a martime forest into a vibrant mixed use community.

A clearance of 155 feet (47 meters) was influenced by the shipping traffic for two upriver facilities: the North Charleston port terminal and the U.S. Navy Base Charleston. The bridge’s height and its four traffic lanes were deemed sufficient during its planning in late 1980s.
Since then the capacity of modern container ships as well as the vehicular traffic on 526 have both at least quadrupled. The height and width of the Don Holt quickly became inadequate, with daily traffic bottlenecks between Daniel Island and the I-26 interchange. Implementing hurricane evacuations became particularly problematic.

In 2024 a replacement was planned and approved. We are still early in the planning stage so the only certainty seems to be that the clearance height above the Cooper River will be close to that of the Ravenel Bridge.
The final product will likely support 8 traffic lanes like the Ravenel, and rumors abound of similar bicycle and pedestrian access.

Wappoo Creek Bridge

This vital span connects James Island, Folly Beach, and Johns Island to the mainland by way of West Ashley. Gently arcing over the Wappoo Creek section of the Intracoastal Wateway, this drawbridge is just the right height for most boats to cruise under, and its steel deck retracts to allow sailboats and other tall vessels to pass in and out of Charleston Harbor.

As with any bridge built in the 1950s, the Wappoo Creek Bridge – while beloved by many – is not ideal for modern traffic. The deck consists of six narrow vehicle lanes and two very tight sidepasses that I once dared to walk a bicycle over. Occasionally the drawbridge gears get stuck which provides a plausible excuse for being late to work, although the route has since been supplemented by the James Island Connector.

Shem Creek Bridge

A small causeway that barely clears the scenic tidal creek, just high enough to allow kayaks and johnboats to pass under. Shem Creek winds its way from Charleston Harbor through the town of Mount Pleasant beset by picturesque views of marshlands and shrimp boats.

Along the creek’s shores, you’ll find an array of seafood restaurants, bars, and shops served by lots of docking space for boats coming in from Charleston Harbor.
A number of homes are peppered throughout neighborhoods along and nearby Shem Creek.