THE BRIDGE-Vicksburg landmark reaches 75-year milestone; anniversary bash planned; public to get chance to walk on span|[6/19/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 20, 2005

Louise Wood may be one of the few people in Vicksburg who remembers when the Old Mississippi River Bridge didn’t exist.

After all, it’s been 75 years since the first cars drove across the 1.6-mile highway. When the bridge opened, May 20, 1930, Wood and an estimated 20,000 people were there.

“They had a big celebration here in Vicksburg,” the 91-year-old said. “I rode on one of the floats.”

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This week, Vicksburg will celebrate its beloved bridge again, with a 75th anniversary bash that includes a dinner Thursday night and a re-creation of the original christening ceremony Saturday. Afterward, people will be allowed to take a walk on the bridge.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before,” said Nancy Bell, director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. “You’re walking on the father of waters.”

Before the bridge was built, the only way across the river was by boat. But, businessman Harry Bovay envisioned a faster way to travel. He formed a corporation and, in 1926, Congress approved the bridge’s construction, funded by $6.5 million in bonds. That amount was eventually repaid by tolls. The bridge took two years and 700 people to complete. Sixty-six-thousand cubic yards of concrete were used.

Jennifer Akers-Harper doesn’t remember when there wasn’t a bridge. As a kid, the Vicksburg native would ride with her parents across the narrow roadway.

“We would always fly,” Akers-Harper said. “You always wanted to hurry up and get off the bridge because you never knew if you were going to fall off into the river.”

Now, railroad cars are the only wheeled vehicles crossing the bridge. It is the only way for a train to cross the river from Memphis to Baton Rouge.

The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in 1998. At that time, the new, Interstate 20 bridge had been open for almost 30 years.

In a non-binding referendum in 1999, nearly 60 percent of Warren County voters casting ballots said they wanted the bridge reopened to cars.

At first, the Warren County Board of Supervisors approved that plan, but five years later rescinded the directive because the road width does not meet safety standards.

Instead, they agreed to allow the Vicksburg Bridge Commission to study the idea of turning the bridge into a park, which would stretch only as far west as the Louisiana state line. The $1.5 million proposal has not been set. It must still gain approval from the county.

“It’s not only a tourist draw, it gives a new, adaptive use of the bridge,” Bell said.

Others oppose the park, saying it’s too dangerous.

“I just don’t know because of those trains coming back and forth,” said 81-year-old Margaret Simmons, whose stepfather helped build the old bridge.

Whatever the bridge becomes, major repairs are in the works. Warren County is seeking up to $6 million dollars to stabilize the bluff over the Mississippi River at the bridge and Navy Circle. Less than two weeks ago, the Vicksburg Bridge Commission approved a nearly $100,000 bid to begin those repairs.

“We could come in one day after a heavy rain and not have part of this bridge,” Smith said.

Bell agreed.

“We’re at a crossroads,” she said. “It’s time to do something to it.”

THE SERIES

In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. 80 Bridge over the Mississippi River, The Vicksburg Post is spending a week looking at the old bridge, its operations and history. Many of the photographs accompanying the stories were taken by Post presentation editor Marty Kittrell, who gingerly took his camera 110 feet to the top of the span, offering rarely seen views.