Note: Today The New Orleans Advocate debuts a monthly feature, “Geographies of New Orleans,” in which Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella explores aspects of our region’s physical, urban and human geography, past and present.
Imagine driving on Barataria Boulevard in Marrero and arriving on Napoleon Avenue in Uptown New Orleans moments later. Or coming along the Press Street tracks in Bywater and landing in Algiers.
Alternately, picture the Pontchartrain Expressway running over Julia Street in the Central Business District or along Race Street in the Lower Garden District.
These and other crossings were considered as Mississippi River bridge locations over the past century. Contemplating what our city might look like today had they happened helps us gauge the enormous role these engineering marvels play in our lives.
Bridges serve to connect and cluster human activity; we build lives around them, and our lives are disrupted when they are disrupted. Consider, for example, the recent closure of the damaged Sunshine Bridge, which has upended commercial and residential life in the Donaldsonville area.
Now is an apt time to consider the role of bridges in the geography of New Orleans, as 2018 marks the 60th and 30th anniversaries of the two spans of the Crescent City Connection.
A long time coming
Calls for a bridge at New Orleans began as early as the 1820s and mounted as cities far up the river, starting with Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois, spanned their channels starting in the 1850s. But the sheer size and power of the river at New Orleans, and the importance of its shipping industry, delayed serious initiatives.
This changed in the 1880s, as railroad interests gained power and sought to cross the river by a method more efficient than ferries. Engineers by now had figured out how to build bridges in deep, powerful currents, sufficiently strong to bear freight trains and high enough to accommodate large ships.
In 1889, civil engineer Elmer Lawrence Corthell, who had helped build jetties at the river’s mouth and a span at St. Louis, proposed a railroad bridge across the river at Nine Mile Point, a mostly rural spot near today’s Bridge City that was convenient to the Southern Pacific and Texas Pacific railroads. The concept gained momentum, even as competing proposals arose for different bridge designs at other locations.
Geological problems and financial issues, however, led to years of delays, and Corthell died in 1916.
That same year, the state Legislature approved a constitutional amendment enabling New Orleans to build, through its Public Belt Railroad Commission, a bridge at Nine Mile Point roughly where Corthell had originally recommended. The same logic applied: This would be a bridge for railroads, not residents, and that’s where the tracks were.
The decision opened an opportunity to propose a bridge for residents. Entrepreneurs George Hero and Allen Hackett had previously succeeded in creating “drainage districts” on the west bank, whereby taxes could be levied on land owners to pay for pump systems to reclaim swamplands. Having drained vast portions of Algiers, Gretna and Harvey in 1915, Hero and Hackett in 1919 proposed a privately financed bridge from Race Street in today’s Lower Garden District to Gretna, leading straight into the newly developable land.
The “Hero-Hackett Bridge” won the enthusiastic support of the Jefferson Parish Police Jury in 1925, but it ran into delays when the War Department pressed for a higher vertical clearance. By the time it issued a permit, the stock market had crashed, and investment money dried up during the Depression.
As for the Nine Mile Point Bridge, planners contemplated the feasibility of a tunnel or a drawbridge, and even considered moving the bridge to Chalmette, present-day Bywater or Carrollton. They settled on river mile 106.1, roughly where Corthell had indicated, and selected a high fixed-span cantilever-and-truss design.
Bridge engineers Modjeski and Masters lengthened the track span to create the 1.25 percent grade needed by freight trains, while still accommodating the War Department’s height requirement for shipping. To accommodate motorists, at the urging of populist Gov. Huey P. Long, two notoriously narrow auto lanes were added.
Work on the colossal project began in 1932 and ended shortly after Long, by then a U.S. senator, had been assassinated. When the bridge opened on Dec. 16, 1935, it was named in Long’s honor.
It is often said that the reason the Huey P. Long Bridge is located so far from downtown New Orleans was Long’s disdain for the city in favor of rural Louisiana. While the outlying location of the bridge may well have pleased the governor, the real reason was the geography of railroads.
Birth of the CCC
The “Huey P” was indeed a boon to railroads and rural Jefferson Parish. But it sat too far from the urban core to affect the lives of most urban commuters. Thousands of New Orleanians continued to ferry across the river daily, to shipbuilding jobs in Algiers or industrial plants in Harvey and Westwego.
Wartime employment made the west bank bustle in the early 1940s, creating congestion on its 19th-century road network. With peace on the horizon, federal legislation in December 1944 created the Interregional Highway System, after which the Louisiana Department of Highways took stock of state highway needs and suggested a bridge between Julia Street and Algiers.
Jefferson Parish officials disliked that option, calling Julia Street overly congested, but their real gripe was that the proposed bridge lay entirely within Orleans Parish. What they and many state officials wanted was a revival of the old Hero-Hackett proposal, from Race Street to Perry Street in Gretna.
To shed light on the options, the Highway Department in 1946 brought in an outside expert — Robert Moses, the lordly urban planner who, from the 1920s to 1960s, would radically reconfigure New York City, a legacy captured in the classic biography “The Power Broker.”
In his influential “Arterial Plan for New Orleans,” Moses observed that “the natural area of residential expansion ... is in the direction of Algiers and Gretna.” To reach it, he proposed a “Pontchartrain Expressway” and “Waterfront (later renamed Riverfront) Expressway” to merge onto a new Mississippi River bridge and connect with a grade-level expressway on the west bank.
Because the Pontchartrain Expressway would follow the soon-to-be-filled state-owned New Basin Canal, Moses’ bridge would have to cross from downtown New Orleans to Algiers; Gretna would be too far upriver.
Would Julia Street work, as previously proposed? No, because Moses also planned to unify the various downtown passenger train stations into a “Union Passenger Terminal,” which had to be on Julia Street — meaning an expressway could not also be there.
Moses instead proposed running the span from Calliope Street (present-day John Churchill Chase) to Lamarque and Socrates streets on the west bank.
In 1952, the Legislature passed the Bridges and Ferries Authority Act and created the Mississippi River Bridge Authority, which would spearhead planning and construction after deciding on site selection.
One of the authority’s consultants pointed out that the foot of Thalia Street had an abandoned train ferry and no wharf, and thus could be acquired cheaply. The authority debated the merits of Calliope versus Thalia and concluded that a bridge at Calliope, being longer, would increase costs by $20 million. So the route was finalized at the Thalia-Bringier Street crossing, 95.7 miles up from the mouth of the Mississippi.
After six long years of design, expropriations, land acquisition and construction of the bridge as well as the Pontchartrain and Westbank expressways, the Greater New Orleans Mississippi River Bridge partially opened one minute after midnight on April 15, 1958. A total of 17,584 vehicles crossed on the first day.
As expected, New Orleans’ first trans-Mississippi bridge was a hit. Within a few years, over 35,000 vehicles crossed it daily, and after tolls were lifted in May 1964, usage jumped to 52,000 per day. That same year, officials announced an ambitious “Outer Belt” encircling the entire metropolis, including bridges at Chalmette to Algiers, from Napoleon Avenue to Marrero, and from Destrehan to Luling, all to be connected by a “Dixie Freeway” along the swampy outer fringe of the west bank.
A second span
By this time, the west bank had become an economic entity unto itself, with more commuters circulating on that side of the river than crossing to the other. Traffic clogged the numerous intersections along the grade-level Westbank Expressway, and in 1977, work commenced on elevating it.
A year later, planning began on what was officially called the Greater New Orleans Mississippi River Bridge No. 2. Once again, a number of routes were considered, including Press Street to Algiers, Causeway Boulevard to Nine Mile Point and, most controversially, Napoleon Avenue to Barataria Boulevard.
But by now, new sensibilities were pumping the brakes on the arterial euphoria. The change started with the stunning preservationist victory in the cancellation of the Riverfront Expressway in 1969, and progressed with the nixing of the Dixie Freeway in 1977 over environmental concerns. Preservationists and planning advocates inveighed against the Napoleon Avenue option. Eventually, only partial segments of the Outer Belt would be built, namely interstates 510, 610 and 310, and the Hale Boggs Bridge connecting Destrehan and Luling.
When the planners got to siting the second span of the downtown bridge, they determined it made more sense to double down on the existing right of way and capitalize on the ongoing augmentation of the Westbank Expressway. Other options were deemed “not feasible” or “not prudent.”
In fact, years before the state legislation was passed to finance the second bridge, consultants had leaned toward this “Parallel to Existing” option. As early as January 1973, Robert Tannen, head of the planning division of Curtis and Davis Architects, told The Times-Picayune that “consultants’ recommendation on a new bridge will be within the corridor (or) general vicinity of the existing Mississippi River bridge.” The engineering firm Modjeski and Masters described the envisioned span as “a new, high-level, multimodal bridge ... located about 400 feet downstream and parallel to the existing (bridge).”
Why 400 feet? Were the spans any closer, soil-pressure “bulbs” associated with the pier caissons might overlap and cause tilting. Were they any farther apart, land requirements for the approaches would expand, driving up costs and complicating ramp placements. Four hundred feet of separation also allowed barge-mounted derricks to move safely among both sets of piers, and minimized the chances that a catastrophic accident, like a vessel collision, would damage both bridges.
This put the crossing at Calliope-to-Lawrence Street, a route deemed “viable” in that it minimized historical and environmental impacts while aligning well with existing expressways, and “prudent” in that it kept land acquisition costs to a minimum and linked the most congested spots on both banks.
It took a solid decade to get from that 1978 decision to the Sept. 30, 1988, dedication ceremony of what would later be renamed, together with its 1958 counterpart, the Crescent City Connection. Said Algiers Rep. Francis Heitmeier that morning: “Today, the west bank will begin a new era in transportation and economic development, and we’ll take our place as the best bank in the entire state of Louisiana.”
Denizens of either bank debate whose side of the river is better, but all can agree that the bridges that unite us — where they are and where they might have been — play an outsize role in how we occupy and experience this Mississippi River-straddling metropolis.
Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture, is the author of “Cityscapes of New Orleans,” “Bourbon Street: A History,” “Bienville’s Dilemma” and other books. He may be reached at email@example.com, http://richcampanella.com, or @nolacampanella on Twitter.