Automobiles were not at all uncommon in Brunswick by the time the 1920s dawned, but a fellah would sooner talk of driving to the moon as to suggest a jaunt on four wheels over to St. Simons Island.
Never going to happen, is what most folks would have told you back then.
Then came that summer day in 1924 when everything changed. Bill Brown was there. Just a lad back then, the 99-years-young Brunswick native and his siblings piled into the family car to be among the first to drive from the mainland to St. Simons Island. The Brunswick-St. Simons Highway was a really big deal, heretofore thought impossible due to the impenetrable nature of the boggy expanse of marshland that would have to be bridged by such a thoroughfare.
Bill was only 5 at the time, but he recalled the fanfare like it was just yesterday.
“It was a real exciting time,” said Bill, a member of founding Brunswick family, the Darts, and a resident historian.
There was a big “pageant” that day at the St. Simons Island foot of the crossing at Gascoigne Bluff, Bill said. There were speeches, ceremonies and much pomp to mark the historic occasion.
“When they opened it up in July of ‘24, we went over to the big pageant they had,” Bill said. “It was a big affair. The governor (Clifford Walker) even came down, I believe.”
These days, we honor the man who said it could be done each day by the thousands, zooming back and forth across the F.J. Torras Causeway. The 4.2-mile causeway was renamed in 1953 for the man whose vision and knowhow brought it into fruition, a year after his death.
Brunswick’s own Fernando Joseph Torras came from a long line of men with vision. The family line can be traced to Sebastian Cabot, a son of a son of early European explorers in the New World.
Skip ahead many generations to Rosendo Torras, who was born in 1829 outside of Barcelona, Spain. Himself a seaman who was schooled in navigation through the University of Barcelona, Rosendo arrived in Brunswick as a sea captain at the helm of a sailing ship sometime around the late 1870s. Here he married Mary Lucy Minehan, who owned large tracts of property in Brunswick’s south end, according to “Brunswick: A Book of Memories.” (Rosendo later remarried to Katherine Fenton Calnan after Mary’s death in 1889.)
Rosendo settled along the Brunswick docks as a successful lumber exporter during Georgia’s lucrative late 19th century timber boom. A world traveler, Rosendo was knighted in 1905 by King Gustaf of Sweden. “Hence,” according to A Book of Memories, “a man of the Brunswick waterfront served in diplomatic circles as Sir Rosendo Torras.”
Fernando Joseph Torras was born in Brunswick to Rosendo and Mary in 1885. (Among his many siblings, Stella Torras Morton was a noted artist, known for her watercolor landscapes of St. Simons Island.)
Spurred by the family predilection for travel and adventure, Torras set out for South America after earning his engineering degree from Georgia Tech. His experience building railways, bridges and roads in those jungle environments of Brazil would serve him well upon his return. Among others feats, he played a role in the challenging construction of the Madeira-Mamore railway that cut through Brazil’s Amazon basin and earned the moniker, “the Devil’s Railroad.”
Torras returned to Brunswick to serve as his hometown’s City Manager, a job he would keep for more than 30 years. At the time, the only way to St. Simons was by ferry. The trip from Brunswick to the Pier Village took an hour or more out of a person’s day, one way. Folks had tossed around ideas for bridging the marshy gap between the mainland and St. Simons Island for years, but what little progress was made only convinced backers of the notion’s futility.
Then, at the request of Mayor Malcom McKinnon, Torras conducted a survey that mapped out the current path of the causeway that bears his name. As chief engineer of the project, Torras conceived a plan to dredge mud from the marsh itself to build up a solid roadbed for the crossing. He gleaned heavily from his experiences with construction in the Brazilian jungles to formulate the causeway plan.
The project enlisted thousands of local workers and was completed in just 13 months. Local revenue bonds backed by New York bankers financed the Herculean effort’s $418,305 cost, which amounts to about $5.9 million in 2018 dollars.
The grand opening was sometime in July, by most accounts, although a later state resolution naming the causeway for Torras lists the grand opening as June 24, 1924. At any rate, it was a big deal. Some 5,500 vehicles carried thousands of folks across the marsh to St. Simons Island on that first opening day. Bill Brown was among some 7,500 people treated to a fish fry with all the trimmings under the oak canopies of Gascoigne Bluff.
The act of driving from Brunswick to St. Simons Island and back no doubt went from remarkable to common place in short order. But before Torras gave it a try, most folks said it could not be done.
Correction: In last week’s column on Brunswick’s 1915 mass shooting perpetrated by Monroe Phillips, I inadvertently listed Albert M. Way among the dead as a result of the rampage. Way, in fact, survived a shotgun blast to the face, losing an eye. Mary Alexander Way Binkney should know: Albert was her grandfather. “He did lose an eye, but if he had died I wouldn’t be here,” she wrote us. So glad I was wrong, Mary.