New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Sunday, June 25, 2017
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1928 World's Longest Bridge

The City of New Orleans covers 365 square miles. Of this, 166 square miles are covered by water in the form of rivers, bayous, streams, swamps and marshes. With this startling statistic, it is why, even though we have had more than our share of rain, mosquitoes, roaches and, in recent years, losing seasons by the New Or-leans Saints, for a long time we had a scarcity of bridges.

Bridges were necessary in New Orleans almost from the very beginning. The first bridges were wooden foot bridges located in the French Quarter. When a city is below sea level with 58.16 inches of rain per year, with no mechanical means of getting rid of the water in the early years, it is easy to understand why foot bridges were necessary.

For the first 210 years of its existence, New Orleans was a peninsula, actually surrounded on three sides by water. In order to get into the city from the north, south and east, you had to use ferry boats.

In 1928, the watery obstacle to the east of the city was about to come to an end. In the early 1920s, automobiles and trucks became more and more popular. In 1927 alone, the United States manufactured 3.5 million vehicles. Throughout the United States, crossing waterways became not only time consuming and a nuisance, but crippling to commerce. Studies by a private eastern company proved there was profit to be made by constructing a toll bridge to the east of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain.

The first toll bridge in North America was built in 1654 in a town today called Rowley, Mass. This bridge was unique as a toll bridge as there was no charge for people to cross, but a toll was charged for each animal crossing the bridge. The company that was to build Louisiana’s first toll bridge was called the Louisiana Pontchartrain Bridge Company with Ely P. Watson as president. One of the prime contractors selected was the McWilliams Company. This was to be no small undertaking. The $5.5 million bridge, and roadways connecting Orleans and St. Tammany Parishes, when completed, would be the longest concrete bridge in the world. Because it was the first of its kind to be constructed, using 3,000 prestressed concrete piles 2 feet square and 74 feet long, (driven by Raymond Concrete Pile Company) a special pile driver had to be designed and built to construct the 4.78 miles, 35 foot wide bridge with two draw spans. Construction moved along like precision clockwork. The bridge was completed in just 417 days, many months ahead of the projected completion date.

The official dedication took place on Saturday, Feb. 18, 1928. Louisiana Governor Simpson, Governor-Designate Huey P. Long, New Orleans Mayor Arthur J. O’Keefe, mayors of most of the cities in St. Tammany Parish, and mayors of many cities along the Gulf Coast all the way to Florida were present. Speakers emphasized the opening was a monument to the new aggressive spirit that had taken hold of New Orleans. One speaker said it proved, in a material way, the faith of investors and the soundness of the city’s future. Travel time to and from New Orleans over the new span would be reduced considerably, and would enhance trade between New Orleans and the manufacturing cities in the northeast, cited another speaker. It was also projected that the population of Slidell would triple in less than 10 years. After all scheduled speakers said what they had to say, the ribbon was cut, and vehicles sped across the span for the first time. The toll on Louisiana’s first toll bridge was the same as it cost to cross the waterway by ferry, $1.25 per vehicle and driver, plus 10 cents for each additional passenger. There was one additional charge added to cross the bridge, and that was a 10 cents state tax per vehicle.

Over the years, the bridge has had a number of different names. Originally, it was called the Pontchartrain Bridge. It was also referred to as the great Watson-Williams Pontchartrain Bridge – Watson was president of the company that built it, and Williams one of the major contractors. Since it was close to five miles long, 4.78 miles, it was called by some the 5-Mile Bridge.

When Huey Long became governor of Louisiana, knowing the importance of smooth movement of traffic, especially commerce, he built 431 bridges during his administration. He was vehemently opposed to toll bridges and offered to have the state buy the Highway 11 Lake Pontchartrain Bridge. He was emphatically told “NO” by the owners of the bridge. Huey, in his own inimitable way, found the solution to the obstacle. On Highway 90, just a short distance from the toll bridge, a free state bridge was constructed over the Rigolets. In 1938, not being able to compete with the free Highway 90 crossing, Highway 11 Lake Pontchartrain Toll Bridge became a free state-owned bridge. (Louisiana purchased the $5.5 million bridge and access roadways for $940,000.) At this time, it took on yet another name, the Maestri Bridge, after Bob Maestri, the then Mayor of New Orleans, and a staunch supporter of Huey Long.

Of the 15,150 state bridges in Louisiana – this does not include parish bridges – only three have tolls on them, namely, the Greater New Orleans twin span, the Sunshine Bridge, and Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.

After 72 years, the Highway 11 Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, or whatever name you choose to call it, is still the seventh-longest bridge in Louisiana.

Source: Buddy Stall at http://clarionherald.org/20000914/stall.htm