Something hanging on the walls of their downtown Columbia hotel kept catching the eyes of Sylvesta and Lotta Robinson.
An iconic scene, the kind that’s popular on postcards and social media posts: A three-frame photo of the Gervais Street bridge crossing the Congaree River.
“I kept passing it, and I said, ‘I want to find this bridge because I want that picture,’” said Lotta Robinson, of Camden.
Walking along the West Columbia Riverwalk Friday afternoon, she photographed it from every angle, capturing its interesting lines and picturesque arches, its angle across the river, where little white caps form as the water hits the rocks below the bridge.
It’s classic Columbia.
Now, we won’t say there’s a feud, or even a competition going on. But there is one bridge in Columbia that seems to get all the love, and another nearby that’s got plenty going for it without a lot of attention (as far as attention to local bridges goes, anecdotally speaking).
It’s Gervais Street versus Blossom Street, and you already know which is the star of the show.
The Gervais Street bridge is the subject of countless photographs and paintings, the host of popular events such as the bridge dinner and Rhythm on the River concerts – and a general icon representing the capital city.
And the Blossom Street bridge – well, it gets you where you want to go.
“One is perhaps more aesthetically exuberant, shall we say, than the other,” said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia.
The popular Columbia Memes Instagram account, a herald of all things beloved about Columbia, recently gave a shout-out to the underappreciated Blossom Street bridge: “Sometimes I feel bad for the Blossom street bridge when everyone is posting pictures of the Gervais st bridge.”
And it issued a noble call to “start treating all of our bridges with respect.”
In all seriousness, there’s something to be said for the distinct characters of downtown Columbia’s two most visible bridges.
More than 27,000 cars traveled over each bridge each day last year. Both serve as important gateways to the capital city and offer distinct first impressions of the city center.
Both bridges are “a neat way to get welcomed into the city, whether it’s the skyline view or the baseball stadium or people out enjoying the water,” said Bill Stangler, the Congaree Riverkeeper.
Opened in 1928, the Gervais Street bridge was the only road crossing the Congaree River into Columbia until the Blossom Street bridge opened in 1953. The Gervais bridge’s decorative architecture is reflective of the style of early skyscrapers built around the same time, Sherrer said.
And there’s some juicy history to go with Gervais Street’s yummy views. You might have heard about Confederate troops burning the thing to stall Gen. William Sherman's advance. A new bridge was built in 1870, before the current bridge.
The Blossom Street bridge, born in the relatively austere post-World War II era, lacks much of the architectural and historical intrigue of its upstream neighbor.
“There’s form and function in it, but it wasn’t necessarily intended to be overly ornate, by any means,” Sherrer said. “But it gets the job done, and it certainly provides a very important gateway to the city, and a gateway that’s becoming increasingly more important with more development.”
While the scenic Cayce Riverwalk winds down beneath it, a drive across the bridge offers a step-back view of the downtown skyline.
Also known as the McMillan bridge, it welcomes you to the quickly transforming southwestern side of downtown, where the University of South Carolina campus, including its baseball stadium, expands ever closer. On the Cayce side are the beehive-like remnants of the historic Guignard Brick Works site.
Newly built apartment communities flank both ends of the bridge, welcoming an influx of largely college-age and young professional residents.
What’s common from both bridges is the beckoning view of the Congaree River in its natural glory (never mind the polluted coal tar that lies beneath part of the water, Stangler wryly notes).
Then there’s that sunset view – whew.
And of course, the other tie that binds the two bridges? The fact that they’re the ties that bind us.
“Bridges are these dividing lines ... but really the bridges connect our communities, and the rivers do, too,” Stangler said. “(They’re) the things that bring us together rather than separate us.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Pros and cons
Gervais Street bridge
Pro: Gosh, it’s pretty. There’s the ornate architecture, of course, but also the decorative light posts and the stunning view of the downtown skyline just before you come over the bridge from West Columbia.
Con: Narrow lanes make for uncomfortable driving. Passing is not recommended.
Pro: All the activity – at the riverwalk amphitheater, the bridge dinner, the Vista entertainment district right at its base and, soon, the New Brookland mixed-use development on the West Columbia side.
Con: That billboard, though. It’s on your left driving east into downtown. You might tune it out of your vision day to day, but it sure can stink up an Instagram post, can it not?
Blossom Street bridge
Pro: Wider lanes give you peace about not trading paint with the car beside you. Plus, there’s more comfort for pedestrians, who appreciate the buffer of bike lanes.
Con: Shorter railings can make bikers and pedestrians wary of the river below. On the other hand, shorter rails mean a better view of the water from the road.
Pro: A zoomed-out view of the downtown skyline as you approach from Cayce, as opposed to driving straight into the heart of the Vista and not being able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak.
Con: Its bland architecture just can’t compete with its counterpart’s iconic arches.