There will be no cake, no balloons, no party on Tuesday to mark a regional icon’s big moment. It’s a shame, considering how likely, at any moment, hundreds of people might be stopped there with nothing better to do.
What locals call the “new bridge" — the Horace Wilkinson Bridge across the Mississippi River — turns 50 years old on April 10.
As part of Interstate 10 and a primary commuter route, the bridge is the area’s most vital transportation link. More than 100,000 cars and trucks cross daily, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development reports. Frequent accidents and a design that forces eastbound traffic to one lane means those vehicles often cross very, very slowly.
But you know all that.
What those younger than the bridge and more recent arrivals may not realize is how this bridge changed this area. It closed businesses. It helped property developers make fortunes. It shifted populations. Nowhere is that more obvious than on one street.
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For much of Baton Rouge’s history, people crossed the Mississippi on ferries. Two of them operated from North Street in Baton Rouge to Court Street in Port Allen.
In 1939, the Huey P. Long Bridge opened on U.S. 190, that day’s major east-west corridor, shifting traffic. Those heading to the State Capitol and Baton Rouge’s downtown used Scenic Highway.
The Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) refinery lined Scenic to the west, its workers filling nearby neighborhoods. Restaurants, car lots, grocery stores, funeral homes, furniture stores, barber shops, doctor’s offices, homes and churches lined the street. Not all of it resembled Mayberry.
“Weller, that was the happening place,” said Ben Peabody Jr., whose father owned Ben Peabody Esso on Scenic. “There were lounges. There was Dad’s Bar. The hotel there had prostitutes in it. It was little Las Vegas. My dad always said you could place a bet easier along Scenic Highway than you could in Las Vegas. There were more bookies at the used car lots all along there.”
Peabody’s was a gas station, sporting goods store and hangout for politicians traveling to and from Baton Rouge.
“People liked to stop there and talk,” Peabody said. “You had to go down Scenic Highway to get to the old bridge, so he said he had a captive audience for many, many years.”
Those bypassing downtown took Airline Highway, which curved to the southeast, where eastbound travelers picked up U.S. 190 or continued down U.S. 61 toward New Orleans. It was a magnet for motels, restaurants and bars.
The crown jewel of these was the Bellemont Motor Hotel.
A.C. Lewis built it in 1946 just north of Greenwell Springs Road, and it became the biggest and fanciest hotel in town. Cary Grant, Steve McQueen and Clark Gable stayed there when filming in the area. Its best suite had its own private pool and was adorned with a large mosaic tile mural.
The Interstate highway system, however, was supplanting roads like U.S. 61 and U.S. 190. The Huey P. Long Bridge wasn’t wide enough to meet interstate standards, so I-10 required a new location and a new bridge.
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Sounding an alarm
Substructure construction on that new bridge began in 1963, a tricky procedure in a deep, constantly flowing river, and complicated by being on North America’s busiest inland waterway. In November 1964, high winds blew a 763-foot-long grain tanker against a bridge pier casting, denting it. In February 1965, a freighter struck a bridge pier, knocking four men off it and toppling a 400-ton steel structure. The men were not seriously injured.
Once piers rose out of the water, the superstructure began extending from the highway approaches on both sides. At 1,235 feet, it was, at the time, the nation’s third longest cantilever span.
That part went pretty much as planned, said David Huval Sr., who worked for DOTD from 1965 to 1977. But there were moments, such as when a piece of steel 4 feet long and 10 inches in diameter came loose from atop the bridge.
“One of those pins fell and came right through a barge, and the pin had to be taken out from the bottom of the river. I was there when that happened,” said Huval, who now runs engineering and construction firms in Lafayette. “I remember that caused some stir. That’s the only thing I remember on the superstructure. Everything else they erected piece by piece.”
Those pieces added up to 106 million pounds of steel, 233,515 cubic yards of concrete and 2,793 tons of asphalt extending 175 feet above the water at a cost of $46 million. The Port Allen interchange, which connected traffic to La. 1 and the Port of Baton Rouge, was the most complex that had been built in Louisiana, state highway officials said.
On April 10, 1968, about 400 people attended the dedication ceremony led by Gov. John McKeithen. The bridge was named for three generations of men named Horace Wilkinson, all from West Baton Rouge Parish, who had served in the Legislature. The two ferryboats that connected Baton Rouge’s North Street to Port Allen’s Court Street steamed away.
At first, traffic jams weren’t a primary source of daily aggravation.
“I used to get calls all the time,” Huval said. “They used to have foghorns, and every time the foghorns would go off, it would wake up the people in Port Allen, and they would call somebody, and the somebody they would call is me.”
Metaphorically speaking, another alarm was sounding.
Beginning of the end
Even before the dedication, Ben Peabody Sr. knew what was coming.
“My dad was alive when they were building it, and he said, ‘That’s all she wrote,’” his son recalled. “I tried desperately to get my dad to move. He had been in business almost 50 years, and he said, ‘Nope. This is all she wrote. This is going to kill my business.’”
It did. And not just his.
In addition to strangling Scenic Highway, the new bridge and interstates opened areas for residential expansion, sparking an exodus to growing subdivisions like Broadmoor and Sherwood Forest and the virgin territory bounded by Interstate 12, Airline Highway and parish lines. Virtually nothing was there on 1969 street maps. By 1979, subdivisions like Shenandoah, Hickory Ridge, Parkview Oaks, Woodland Ridge and Magellan Place created a spider web of streets that would only grow as people left the skyline of refinery cracking towers for literally greener pastures.
A drive today down Scenic Highway gives scant evidence of its glory days. The 1969 Polk City Directory lists 34 businesses and six residences in nine blocks between Huron and Gordon streets, including popular enterprises like Granberry’s White House Restaurant, McInnis-Peterson Chevrolet, Hebert Charles Department Store and, of course, Ben Peabody’s Esso.
In 1998, ExxonMobil began buying out property owners to create a green space, not only on Scenic but two parallel streets. Now, little testimony remains that people lived, worked and played there.
The effect on Airline Highway was less stark but undeniable. Tractor supply stores, auto repair shops and payday loan offices replaced businesses that thrived on passers-by. The Continental Motel now is a car lot. Two Jacks Restaurant is a Taco Bell. The Oak Lodge gave way to Home Depot.
The Bellemont's design — a complex of multiple buildings — made it inefficient to operate, said Alex Lewis, the founder’s son. As modern hotels near I-10 and College Drive siphoned business, the family built The Great Hall in 1984. Ornate and Baton Rouge’s largest hotel convention room, it was a bold, Hail Mary gamble to buck the trends.
It was doomed.
“It did help sustain our bigger conventions and everything because that was, at the time, the largest single convention room in a hotel in town,” Lewis said. “But even with the Great Hall, it was becoming more and more difficult for people to want to stay there.”
The family surrendered the hotel to Hibernia Bank in 1987, Lewis said. After other owners failed to keep it going, the Bellemont and The Great Hall were leveled in 2012.
Six years later, a 20-acre concrete slab is all that remains.
On the west side
South of I-10, the bridge opening made Brusly and points south more accessible to Baton Rouge, and subdivisions have sprung up along La. 1. But it's been a mixed bag in Port Allen.
Ferries once kept a steady flow of traffic up and down Court Street, where the ferry docked, and on La. 1, which once ran through the middle of town and was moved to accommodate the approach to the bridge. Former Port Allen Councilman R.J. Loupe remembers cars jamming Court Street, especially before LSU football games.
“The traffic was something,” Loupe said. “We were kids … and we would go shine their shoes or do whatever they want, go get them a Coke, for a dime or a nickel. We made a lot of money. … It was fantastic.”
Now, the D’Agostino Building at Court and Jefferson (formerly La. 1) streets, once home to a hotel, restaurant and various enterprises, has been mostly vacant for 20 years. Commerce moved to the relocated, four-lane La. 1 four blocks away. City officials hope to revitalize the area.
“It made a big, big change in our business world,” Loupe said. “Life goes on, and it continues to change, but I’ll never forget those days if I live to be 100.”
As for relieving interstate traffic, plans have been frequently proposed, but a newer “new bridge” remains a pipe dream. If history is a guide, should it happen, it will reshape the area in unexpected ways.
Editor's note: This article was changed on Sunday, April 8, 2018, to note that it is eastbound traffic coming off the Horace Wilkinson Bridge that funnels down to one lane.
Official name: Horace Wilkinson Bridge, named for three generations of men named Horace Wilkinson, all from West Baton Rouge Parish, who had served in the Legislature
Opened: April 10, 1968
Daily traffic: 106,000
Construction cost: $46 million
Longest span: 1,235 feet
Height: 175 feet
Width: 80 feet