One of the most distinct features of the First Coast area is the St. Johns River and the seven bridges that run across it to connect various parts of the city. We will profile each of these bridges, in a series titled “Seven Bridges.”
The John E. Mathews Bridge, constructed in 1953, stands at 1.47 miles long and facilitates traffic between the areas of downtown and Arlington. It’s one of three uniquely colored bridges crossing the St. Johns River, itself having a unique maroon shade.
The bridge carries westbound traffic to downtown Jacksonville; specifically, it provides easier access to the sports district, exiting around TIAA Bank Field. Eastbound traffic coming from downtown continues onto Arlington Expressway, providing access to several neighborhoods as well as the nearby Jones College, with an exit on the expressway also providing quicker access to Jacksonville University. It crosses over Exchange Island, a largely empty piece of land spanning over 30 acres. The island has been the subject of recent development talks, with the city hoping to add a dock and pavilion for boaters who wish to stop and enjoy the island’s scenery.
The bridge was constructed in 1953 at a cost of around $11 million. Its structure is that of a cantilever bridge, employing trusses. The city’s Hart Bridge also uses this structure, ranking as one of the longest such bridges in the country. Cantilever bridges are commonly used for particularly long bridges; the steel truss cantilever portion of the bridge is less than 800 feet long, with the remainder of its 7,736-foot length being constructed with concrete. Clearance below the bridge is measured at roughly 146 feet. It has a width of 58 feet.
The bridge has gotten a bit of a bad reputation over the years due to its perceived danger. Prior to being renovated a few years ago, the bridge’s center span had steel grating at its base, providing a bumpy, slippery, noisy riding experience that often left travelers feeling unsafe crossing the bridge. After years of complaints from residents, the bridge’s grating has since been paved over with smooth concrete. Another cause of concern is the bridge’s narrow design; passing over it can certainly create a feeling of claustrophobia, with its steel beams looming almost as closely as adjacent traffic, and prior to the grating being paved over it was an overall terrifying experience for anyone not well-acquainted with the bridge. Despite improvements, it remains one of Jacksonville’s least popular bridges.
The bridge was named for John E. Mathews, Sr. According to Laura Jo and Kendall Brunson’s book Legendary Locals of Jacksonville, Mathews was a constitutional lawyer who rose the ranks to eventually become Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, serving in this capacity from 1951 until his passing in 1955. The bridge was named in his honor as a result of his successful efforts in establishing funding for its construction.
The bridge was originally silver and gained its distinctive maroon color in the 1980s. It’s rumored to have been painted maroon in honor of the short-lived Jacksonville Bulls, a USFL team that served as a precursor to the city earning an NFL team.
The bridge is notably referenced in a Limp Bizkit song, “My Generation,” by lead singer and Jacksonville native Fred Durst.
Despite being hated by locals, the Mathews Bridge is nonetheless a distinctive, colorful part of the city’s downtown skyline, and a key part of its infrastructure.
Next up: Acosta Bridge!