Jim Bradshaw: Atchafalaya bridge was big deal for south Louisiana
A thousand or more people lined the banks of the Atchafalaya River on a hot, sultry day in July 1933 to watch the installation of the first big segment of the first automobile bridge to span the river between Morgan City and Berwick.
The Long-Allen bridge, named for governors Huey Long and O.K. Allen, was a big deal. The spectators came out to watch as one of the longest spans ever seen in Louisiana was floated into position between piers that had been set to a world-record depth. The span was then lifted 60 feet above the water and fitted into niches that, engineers prayed, would hold them safely for as long as engineers could imagine.
It was also a big deal because the bridge was sorely needed to speed traffic along the Old Spanish Trail (later to become U.S. 90, today La. 182), the most important highway in south Louisiana, and probably the most important in the southern United States.
The OST was conceived in the early 1900s as a modern highway along the Gulf Coast that would eventually stretch to California. It was substantially completed by the 1920s, but there were two big bottlenecks in Louisiana. There was no bridge across the Mississippi at New Orleans, nor was there one across the Atchafalaya at Morgan City.
A railroad bridge had crossed the river about 1915, but cars had to use a toll ferry until Huey began a road building project in 1928 that included bridges in both places. The Huey P. Long Bridge was opened in December 1935 in Jefferson Parish, the first Mississippi River span built in Louisiana. But the bridge over the swirling Atchafalaya was finished first and was deemed to be a pretty remarkable achievement.
In June 1933, according to news accounts, workers from the Mt. Vernon (Ohio) Bridge Co “burrowed to a record depth into the muddy bottom of the … river in sinking a pier for … near where the broad stream pours its flood water into the Gulf of Mexico.” This was the last of the four major piers for the bridge, and it was sunk more than 175 feet below the low water level. That broke a record held by a bridge in Australia. It led the list until 1937, when piers were sunk more than 200 feet for the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
The massive Atchafalaya piers were the primary support for pre-constructed spans for the bridge’s roadbed. Those also involved some remarkable engineering. The Associated Press reported on July 7 that “the first of three great spans for the Berwick Bay bridge … was successfully floated out and placed on its piers sixty feet above water level within a space of two hours while thousands lined the shore to see the engineering feat.” It was not an easy lift. Each 608-foot span weighed 1,400 tons, not including the concrete roadway itself.
The third and final span of the bridge was floated into position September 28, 1933, causing Louisiana Tourist Bureau writer Agathine H. Goldstein to wax probably as poetic as possible over parts of a truss bridge.
“Gliding through space like the phantom-skeleton of some giant dragon of ancient lore,” she wrote, “the third and final large span of the Atchafalaya river bridge at Morgan City was swung into its intended resting place and another feat of modern engineering was accomplished.
“In the present era of advanced mechanics,” she continued in 1933, “the building of an ordinary bridge entails small recognition. But when the spans rest on the deepest pier in the world, and when the longest individual spans ever floated are put into their particular niches without mishap or error, the situation takes on a different aspect, and makes of that bridge an edifice apart from others.”
Goldstein had predicted that “when completed, [the bridge] will be one of the outstanding achievements of the Highway Commission in Louisiana, removing a gap in the Old Spanish Trail, one of the most traveled roads in the state, and providing a free bridge where a toll ferry had been in operation for the greater part of a century.”
When U.S. 90 was upgraded through Morgan City in the 1970s, the road across the Long-Allen bridge became part of La. 182, which is commonly called “old 90” in much of south Louisiana. The four-lane E. J. “Lionel” Grizzaffi Bridge opened in 1975 as part of the updated U.S. 90.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.