When the Watson-Williams Pontchartrain Bridge opened on Feb. 18, 1928, the New Orleans Stock Exchange closed for the day so dignitaries could attend celebrations held for the first vehicle bridge to span Lake Pontchartrain.
Since then, the 4.98-mile drawbridge that links Slidell to the Irish Bayou area has survived political turmoil, the ravages of age and the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. But for the next three months, the bridge will be closed to vehicles for a $28.36 million Department of Transportation and Development overhaul.
The work, which began in August, won't be finished until the summer, and intermittent closures affecting both vehicular and marine traffic began in late November. On Jan. 3, the bridge closed completely; it isn't expected to reopen until April 18.
The American Bridge Co. is the contractor for work that includes concrete and structural repair, replacing the grid deck and bridge operator's house, and a complete replacement of the electrical and mechanical parts that open and close the bridge for boats.
DOTD District Administrator Chris Morvant said the bridge must be closed to vehicular traffic during the work because the drawbridge will not be operable.
The closure is an inconvenience for people who live in the south end of Slidell, said St. Tammany Parish Councilman Jerry Binder, who represents the area. But he thinks most people there would consider getting the bridge in good repair worth a few months of longer commutes.
When the Interstate 10 twin spans were rebuilt after Katrina, they were made not only higher, but also wider, with an additional third lane. That added lane has meant fewer backups on the twin bridges, Binder said, noting that people formerly would detour to the U.S. 11 bridge when I-10 traffic stalled.
Even with added capacity on the twin spans, the U.S. 11 bridge, sometimes called the 5-mile bridge, is still useful as an alternate route, Binder said, adding that he has used it frequently.
"I'd rather have the U.S. 11 bridge fully repaired," he said. "We do need a second bridge."
The old bridge proved its value after Katrina, when it withstood a storm surge that pummeled the twin spans, he said, providing a vital link to the south shore.
For some, it remains their link of choice. Slidell resident Alexis Dullary, who drives to the Central Business District every day for her job at an insurance company, always used the old bridge until it closed this month.
Now, she has to drive down Old Spanish Trail to reach I-10 and cross the twin spans. Her commute, which used to take 45 to 55 minutes, now takes an hour and 15 minutes, she said.
Jay Albert, who runs a contracting business from his home on Carr Drive, is also a regular user of the old bridge, as are his crews. Crossing the lake on the twin spans adds 10 to 15 minutes to the drive, he said.
He also thinks that the closure has brought a lot of additional traffic to Eden Isles, because people who live off Pontchartrain Drive cut through that subdivision to reach I-10.
Albert has been watching the progress of repairs, he said, and has seen crews injecting epoxy into cracks in the bridge's pilings.
That work involves repair of damaged concrete on the piles, girders and pile caps, Morvant said, with all the work going on beneath the roadway surface.
Some missing sections of concrete are being replaced with a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer being used to strengthen the repaired area, Morvant said.
A project in 2012 that replaced the concrete barrier rail with steel railing also caused the bridge to be closed for several months.
But during its nine decades, the bridge has been threatened with more permanent closure.
Constructed as a toll bridge, it cost $5 million, and motorists had to pay a hefty $1.25 to cross, plus a dime for each additional passenger.
That drew the wrath of newly elected Gov. Huey P. Long, who threatened to build free bridges and turn the structure into "the most expensive buzzard roost that has ever been constructed in the United States," according to his autobiography.
He made good on the threat, building the Rigolets bridge, and the Watson-Williams bridge was driven into financial ruin. The state bought it at a bargain price of $940,000 about 10 years after it opened, renaming it the Maestri Bridge, after Robert Maestri, mayor of New Orleans and political ally of Long.
In 1989, some DOTD officials were calling for the bridge to be retired, arguing that it was not only in bad shape but obsolete and a safety hazard because of its lack of shoulders. But local officials, including Phil Salvaggio, a Slidell City Council member and restaurateur, objected to the plan because of the impact it would have on area businesses, according to media reports from the time.
The state ended up removing the asphalt surface and replacing it with concrete in 2002, an extensive project that included repairs to piles, girders, expansion joints and the concrete barrier as well as refurbishing electrical and mechanical parts, Morvant said.
Now, nearly 91 years after it opened, the state is giving the oldest bridge over the lake another overhaul, and Binder said he hasn't received even one complaint about the closure.
Albert, for one, is just glad that the state is fixing it.
"I hope it stays fixed for a lot of years to come," he said.