Grand ole span marks 75th year|[5/21/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 23, 2005

It’s withstood the rise and fall of flood waters, a 1953 tornado that devastated much of nearby downtown and the swirling controversy around its fate.

For 75 years the U.S. 80 bridge has stood, spanning the Mississippi River connecting two states and the rest of the nation by road and rail. A celebration marking the span’s birthday and a re-creation of its dedication is in the planning stages for this summer, said Nancy Bell, director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historical Preservation.

“How it changed Vicksburg is an important thing,” Bell said.

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The celebration will include a dinner on June 23 with guest speakers on the history of the bridge, and a ceremony at the bridge on June 25, but the actual anniversary of the first cars across the span was Friday.

An estimated 20,000 people were present on May 20, 1930, for the ceremony marking the end of two years of construction. There was a baseball game, fireworks, a flotilla parade and ribbon cutting.

The opening of the span marked the end of ferrying by boat passengers and trains across the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

Building a bridge at Vicksburg was the idea of a business man named Harry Bovay. Bovay formed a corporation and, in 1926, Congress passed special legislation authorizing the construction of the bridge through $6.5 million that was funded by bonds and repaid by tolls.

The Vicksburg Bridge Company owned and operated the bridge until it was sold to Warren County for $7 million in 1947. The county since has operated the bridge akin to a business under the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, which continued to collect tolls until 1967.

Funding for upkeep of the bridge today comes from per car tolls charged to the railroad company that holds the 999-year lease on the tracks that run parallel to the roadbed and from utility lines attached to the span.

Although the bridge was officially dedicated on May 20, the railroad began using the tracks in late April 1930, and cars have been using the roadbed since early May.

For nearly 43 years, until the Interstate 20 bridge opened, the old bridge remained the single route between Vicksburg and all points west.

Despite the competition from the interstate bridge to the south, the county-owned, older bridge has become synonymous with the city. It has been featured on multiple publications about Vicksburg, the Delta and Mississippi and it has become one of the most recognizable images from the city.

“The design of the bridge is beautiful and, as historical preservationists, we want to see that structure saved,” Bell said.

The public has not been able to drive across the span since 1998, when the roadbed was closed because of deterioration. Separately, that same year, public outcry put a halt to a plan to sell the bridge to the railroad company for $5.5 million.

A public debate ensued and led to a 1999 non-binding referendum, in which nearly 60 percent of voters said they favored reopening the bridge to traffic.

Two weeks after the public vote, supervisors voted 4-1 to instruct the bridge commission to reopen the bridge to two-way traffic, but since, new safety issues have delayed any progress.

The commission is again looking at options for a park on the bridge, but this time, members are considering only a plan that would go to the Louisiana state line. The current proposal would cost $1.5 million in addition to the other repair work that is needed.

That proposal has not been set and must still win approval from the Board of Supervisors, but other groups, including the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Vicksburg and the Foundation for Historic Preservation, are backing it.

“The majority of the people do not do the Over the River Run so they haven’t gotten a chance to walk across the bridge and look out over the river. It’s quite an experience,” Bell said. “We would like to see it as a park so people can go out on it and experience it everyday.”

The run is annually in September.

The foundation is planning to open up at least part of the span for this summer’s birthday celebration, which will include a dinner June 23 at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center and ceremony June 25 on the bridge.

The dinner will include speakers about the history of the bridge and will cost $20 per person.

“We’re looking for people who have tokens or any artifacts from the bridge and people who used it from when they were young,” Bell said.

Plans for the ceremony are to repeat the christening of the bridge 75 years ago with two bottles of water, one from the Pacific Ocean and one from the Atlantic.

For more information about the bridge birthday bash, contact the Foundation for Historic Preservation at 601-636-5010 or by e-mail at vburgfoundation@aol.com.