Like it or loathe it, commerce and the movement of goods have been at the center of Georgia since the 1733 founding of the colony in Savannah. James Edward Oglethorpe and the original Georgia Trustees brought many English and some Irish debtors to the fledging colony, with hopes of establishing an agrarian class of yeoman farmers, working alongside a business and mercantile class to provide a commercial outpost with the neighboring colony of Savannah. Oglethorpe would further ban slavery in the colony until 1750, to help ensure a self-sufficient working class. The Savannah River, as well as the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal waterway, connected Savannah to the Carolinas, and to points south, including Georgia’s second oldest city, Darien, Georgia. Darien came into existence six months ahead of Augusta, also connected to Savannah from the north via the Savannah River. Barged cotton and other farm products began the intracolonial trade routes, later followed by wagon, and still later rail, and then more recently roads, highways, and now interstates.
Among those highways is U.S. Highway 17, the Coastal Highway, which traces the Atlantic shoreline from just outside of Washington, D.C. to Punta Gorda, Florida. Interstate 95 is further inland, and while faster for long haul trucks and tractor-trailers, locals and savvier travelers often follow U.S. 17 from below Savannah all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, and points south.
The majestic Darien River bridge connects Darien and McIntosh County to Glynn County and Brunswick to its south, rolling through the famous Marshes of Glynn. The long span, now 80-years old is in visually good repair, and has been deemed functionally ‘obsolete,’ and in need of replacement by the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Downtown Darien, just on the north end of the existing Darien Bridge, has sprung to life again in recent years. Skipper’s Fish Camp is a destination for seafood lovers from all across the south, but other dining destinations, a wine bar, and several B&B’s are now just steps away from that bridge, along with a beautiful waterfront park and walk-way, and easily accessible look back at Georgia’s shrimp back. Area shrimpers have migrated to Darien’s boat slips and landed along the Darien River, in part pushed out by rising dock rates and tourists/newer retirees in multiple points south.
While area locals are most prominent among the local businesses, an emerging ‘best-kept secret’ reputation has been built for the peaceful and bucolic community, with hanging moss almost as often visible and the lilting southern accents. But GA DOT can crush and almost end all of that with one fatal blow. The department plans to begin construction on a new Darien Bridge, atop the footprint of the existing one. Despite earlier promises by GADOT leadership to keep at least one lane open during construction, the current plan is to demolish the entire existing bridge in phases and re-build it anew, while closing that span of U.S. Highway 17 for three years.
Not only is this plan bad, and bordering on criminal in its neglect of the people and businesses of Darien and McIntosh County, but the suggested inland detour, heading north or south on I-95 and across Georgia Highway 99 into and out of the small town is roughly 40-miles roundtrip.
This will be challenging EMS and all emergency responders to reach downtown Darien, tourists and locals will simply pick out other destinations more easily accessed, and within a few years, that slow-building Darien charm and reputation for southern hospitality may be all but again forgotten.
When the entire St. Simons Island causeway and ALL of its several bridges were replaced during the mid-to-late 1980s, the old roads and bridges were fully in place until the new routes were completed. Similarly, when larger cargo ships required a taller Sidney Lanier Bridge to access the port of Brunswick, the U.S. 17 bridge connecting Brunswick to the Jekyll Island causeway and points south remained fully in place until the new bridge (no longer a draw bridge) was ready for duty.
Our GADOT seldom makes judgment errors of this size, but this is a doozy. Commissioner, please head back to the drawing board on this project. The people of Darien didn’t even ask for this bridge, and it certainly isn’t fair to destroy their downtown and years of work of work to develop tourism to replace the now failing outlet mall along I-95. Asking these folks to lose that bridge for three years is like asking them each to walk the plank. That is simply a bridge too far. There has GOT to be a better GDOT way.
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