Published 12:00 am Monday, June 27, 2005

take a walk on the old span|[6/26/05]

About 300 people walked or strolled across the Old Mississippi River Bridge Saturday morning, marking the anniversary of the span that connected two states and a whole nation 75 years ago.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Larry Strayer, who walked across the bridge with his wife, Lydia.

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“The river is so impressive,” Lydia Strayer said. The two moved to Vicksburg from Ridgeland after retiring two years ago and had never walked or driven on the structure.

A number of children and teens were among those taking in the rarely seen views from the bridge. Three teen boys stopped to talk about the experience.

“I’m not scared of heights,” said Bradley Smith, 15.

Fifteen-year-old Jamie Little agreed. “I wish I could climb up there,” he said, pointing to the highest point, 110 feet above the bridge roadbed. “I’d like to raise the flag.”

The flag waves above the black steel structure because 11 years ago, Vicksburg resident Blanche Millsaps asked the Vicksburg Bridge Commission if a flag could be flown if she supplied it.

Her request was granted.

On Saturday, Millsaps was there to see yet another new Old Glory raised.

“I never get tired of it,” she said. “It just does something to you if you love your country.”

The first dedication ceremony of the bridge was May 20, 1930. On that day, two bottles of water, one from the Atlantic Ocean and one from the Pacific, were broken, symbolizing the bridge’s link between the East and the West.

That ceremony was re-created Saturday. Linda Hadala poured two bottles of ocean water over the side of the bridge. Hadala is the niece of Harry Bovay, the Vicksburg businessman who came up with the idea and private investments to build the bridge. Hadala’s father, Glenn Bovay, was the first superintendent of the bridge.

“It was an honor to be a representative for the family,” said Hadala, who was born 11 years after the bridge opened.

The initial costs of the bridge that was sold to the county in 1947 was funded by a toll charged on each vehicle that crossed the river. Today the maintenance costs are funded by trains that are charged per-car fees for crossing and companies that use the span for natural gas, fiber optic and phone lines.

The 18-foot roadbed, which has deteriorated greatly since the bridge was opened, was closed to vehicular traffic in 1978, and Warren County supervisors have said it will not be reopened because of safety and insurance.

In November 1999, a non-binding, countywide vote indicated most residents wanted the bridge reopened to vehicles, fewer wanted it transformed into a pedestrian and bicycle park, a proposal still on the table, and even fewer wanted the bridge to be sold, a proposal offered by Kansas City Southern Railway.

Since then, erosion has begun to take its toll on piers of the old bridge and members of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission have begun the financial fight to stop and correct that problem.

But the maintenance problems and the question of the bridge’s destiny seemed far from minds Saturday as pedestrians walked, trains rumbled by and barges and pleasure boats passed below on the river.

Bridge Superintendent Herman Smith said he was pleased with the whole affair.

“That’s my want,” Smith said. “To get more people out here to experience this view.”