The Mathews Bridge opened as a vision, a novelty and an unintended tourist attraction which changed Arlington, the downtown and the Jacksonville Beaches forever.
Downtown merchants hailed the bridge as a potential business bonanza. Ultimately, it would contribute to the decline of downtown Jacksonville.
The bridge generated a debate about tolls which continues today, long after its April 15, 1953 opening. Clouds of controversy lingered over the bridge for years and some remain. Safety of the bridge is questioned with automobile and ship accidents contributing to the debate. And the ability of the four-bridge lane bridge to function in the 21st Century is still an unresolved topic with a highly expensive solution.
Governor Warren standing with Supreme Court Justice Mathews (back right) in group portrait by monument during the John E. Mathews Bridge dedication ceremony in 1953. (State Archives of Florida)
A driving force to construct the bridge and its namesake was John E. Mathews, Sr., a former Duval County attorney and state legislator. He was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Gov. Fuller Warren and later was elected Chief Justice by his colleagues on the court. Mathews’ tenacity was legendary. While serving in the Florida House of Representatives in the 1940s the then red-headed Mathews conducted a three-day filibuster. As it dragged on, Mathews asked the Speaker of the House to close the legislative chamber to women and children so he could use a spittoon to relieve himself. Mathews got a brief recess instead so he could conduct his other business of the day.
Talk of building a new bridge to Arlington started soon after cars became popular and affordable in the early 20th Century. In 1938, the Duval County Commission discontinued ferry service to encourage support for a bridge. Voters during that time rejected a proposal to build a bridge. Train service to the Beaches had also been discontinued. Prior to the Mathews construction, only two vehicular bridges crossed the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, the original Acosta Bridge which opened in July 1921 and the Main Street Bridge, opened in July 1941. (The proper name of the Main Street Bridge is the John T. Alsop Bridge, named after a former mayor. The namesake of the Acosta Bridge was St. Elmo (Chic) Acosta, a former city councilman and state legislator who led efforts to build a vehicle/pedestrian bridge across the St. Johns River. The Florida East Coast Railway Bridge opened in 1890.)
Congestion on the Main Street and Acosta bridges was a primary reason for supporting a bridge to Arlington. Haydon Burns, mayor of Jacksonville at the time the Mathews Bridge opened and an ardent supporter, correctly predicted the impacts of a new river crossing and said it would expedite the growth of Arlington and the Beaches.
Financing the bridge continued to be a major stumbling block. Bonds backed by toll revenues was the solution to build a bridge which cost $11 million to construct. The first one-way toll on the Mathews was 15 cents for automobiles, motor cycles and light trucks and 25 cents for heavy trucks, trailers and other vehicles. Some thought in 1953 the toll fees were too high. At the bridge’s dedication ceremony, Mathews called the project “a perpetual example of public utilities on the pay as you go plan.”
“Better roads and bridges must be built, and they must be largely financed by tolls,” said Mathews, who died in 1953.