New Orleans did not get its first Mississippi River bridge until the 1930s. For more than 100 years before that, though, engineers and amateurs had come up with New Orleans bridge plans that, for one reason or another, never got off the drawing board.
In January 1887, the notorious robber baron and speculator Jay Gould was touring the harbor at New Orleans. In the pilothouse of the railroad transfer boat Gouldsboro, one of numerous ferries carrying train cars back and forth across the river, he posed a question to a railroad executive. “Cannot this river be bridged?”
The Eads Bridge had been completed a dozen years earlier at St. Louis, but the first bridge over the Lower Mississippi River would not be built until 1892. That was The Great Bridge at Memphis, later named the Frisco Bridge.
To answer Jay Gould’s question, yes, the river at New Orleans could be bridged, but the obstacles were not just physical; they were also economic, financial, and political.
The earliest known proposal for a bridge at New Orleans was from an engineer named Jean Jerome. In 1826, he submitted to the new Louisiana Legislature a plan for a bridge “built of free stone, on arches, and of sufficient width to allow of the erection of a row of houses on each side, after the manner of some bridges in Europe, with a draw in the middle to admit the passage of vessels.”
This would have been an interesting enterprise, to say the least. The term “free stone” refers to precisely-cut stone blocks, fitted together without cement or grout or anything else. There are beautiful examples of this construction technique all over the world, but not too many of them were attempted in a half-mile-wide river with an average discharge of more than 16,000 cubic meters per second.
The “manner of some bridges in Europe” was likely exemplified by the famous Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River in Florence, Italy. That storied bridge is only about 400 feet long. It’s not certain that Monsieur Jerome ever set foot on the banks of the Mississippi River, but in any event the Louisiana Legislature, in its wisdom, declined to act on his proposal.
By the middle 1800s, the science of bridge-building had advanced somewhat, although the advances were in cost-saving rather than in safety. Some bridges were built of wood; others used the slightly more advanced technology of wrought iron. Unfortunately, according to one estimate, “as many as 40 bridges might collapse in a single year, a figure that meant that for every four bridges put up one would fall down.”
But forward-thinking New Orleans leaders wanted a bridge. An 1869 editorial in the Daily Picayune was surprisingly prophetic on one or two points. It argued that “the time is not far distant when a bridge will span the Mississippi at New Orleans, with a double track for ordinary vehicles, and another double track for railways.” That’s basically what New Orleans ended up getting six decades later when the Huey P. Long Bridge finally opened for business—although “ordinary vehicles” in the 1860s were of the horse-drawn variety.
The editorial also predicted that a bridge at New Orleans “must necessarily be a suspension bridge, because [of] the uncertain nature of the river bottom, and the swiftness and power of its current….”
This trepidation about attempting to build piers in the middle of the powerful river was understandable, but most people familiar with the local landscape also know that there’s no solid ground in which to anchor cables for a suspension bridge.
The Picayune editors offered a solution for that. They argued that there would “have to be built up pyramids upon the main shore, on either side, from which will be stretched … iron cords which will support those roadways….” A strange picture to imagine, perhaps, but a serious engineering proposal similar to the Picayune’s “pyramids” will appear later in our story.
“What man or boy now living,” the 1869 editorial asked, “is to build the New Orleans bridge…? He will have a great name in the roll of scientific mechanics who will do this…. It is better to have such a name than that of a conqueror.”
Twenty years later, there were in fact bridge builders and engineers who had become, if not conquerors, then at least household names for their daring and dramatic engineering exploits. One of these was Elmer Corthell, who had worked with James Buchanan Eads on the St. Louis bridge and on the Mississippi River jetties.
In January 1889, Corthell and a powerful group of interested parties incorporated the Southern Bridge & Railway Company. The parties included Jay Gould, as well as Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Other railroads represented in the group were the C&O, Illinois Central, L&N, Louisville, New Orleans & Texas, Northeastern, and Texas Pacific. The bridge Corthell designed for them was a fixed high-rise bridge crossing the river above Twelve Mile Point, giving a straight shot into New Orleans from the west.
In less than a month, Corthell’s group had competition. The New Orleans Terminal Railway & Bridge Company was incorporated, proposing instead a drawbridge below Algiers Point, above the future site of the Industrial Canal.
Mississippi River mariners can be forgiven for laughing at the notion of a drawbridge right below Algiers Point. In any event, the main dispute here was between river steamboat interests and oceangoing shipping interests. The former wanted the bridge to be below the city; the latter wanted it built above the city.
In May 1889 at a meeting in New Orleans of the Mississippi River Commission, opposing sides presented their cases. River steamboatman Capt. Thomas P. Leathers said that a bridge with a channel span of less than 1,000 feet and vertical clearance of less than 119 feet would interfere with river traffic. A representative of the Morgan Line steamships said that a bridge below the city would be a serious obstruction, and it should be at least 140 feet high. Others added that seagoing ships would have trouble lining up to transit the channel span when leaving port. Capt. Leathers angrily told the commission members that this was a “government of railroad monopolies.” He sarcastically suggested that they might as well just “build pontoon bridges and abandon the river altogether.”
This division between upriver and downriver interests was obviously going to result in nothing getting done, and the daily papers in frustration began editorializing. The Picayune called the last years of the 19th century “pre-eminently an era of bridge building,” comparable to times in history when builders devoted themselves to lasting monuments such as pyramids, temples, castles, and fortresses. “We of the South have bridged every estuary and arm of the sea from Mobile to Galveston. We have laid our steel track over the waves of Lake Pontchartrain, and now the Mississippi, the great Father of Waters, alone remains to be put under iron bands. Its turbid current will not long interpose a barrier to the through trackway.”
In August 1889, the Times-Democrat argued for “a great railroad bridge across the Mississippi River at this point, high enough to be above the towering smokestacks of the tallest and mightiest passenger steamer that ever plowed the Father of Waters into long furrows of foam-crested waves, and with wide enough span to permit of the safe turning of the great ocean greyhounds that must come to this city across the sea, or to secure passage of the immense barge tows that bring at one trip ample cargoes for two or three of the biggest steamships that ever cleared the blue billows of mid-ocean.”
Across town, the Daily States couldn’t resist making fun of the Times-Democrat’s flowery prose, arguing that, nay, “the bridge should have span wide enough to permit the safe turning of the biggest steamship that ever cleared the blue billows of the vast and fathomless deep, across whose trackless wastes, lashed by bellowing storms into raging fury and anon sinking into a repose, placed as that of a cradled infant, she is steered by the weather beaten mariner,” and so on and on.
After several more column inches about myriads of enchanted dolphins tumbling and pirouetting around the ocean greyhounds’ prows, the States on a slightly more serious note questioned “how such a bridge can be constructed, at this point, by the ordinary methods and with the ordinary materials” of the day. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the critic suggested using a fantastical method described in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 short story “Mellonta Tauta,” using the technology of hot air balloons. This was in an era, after all, of balloons, dirigibles and airships.
“Without doubt some eight or ten such balloons, anchored to the earth and also attached, at proper points, to the bridge,” the editor suggested, “would be amply sufficient to hold it in suspension without other support; and, when an ocean greyhound, or the towering smoke stacks of a passenger steamer are seen approaching, the guys could be slackened, whereupon the balloons would carry up the bridge to a height which would enable the mighty craft to pass under it….”
This bridge, if the reader will pardon the pun, never got off the ground.
By 1892, there were 21 bridges across the Ohio River, 23 on the Missouri River, 16 on the Illinois, plus the Upper Mississippi River bridges and the Great Bridge at Memphis. But there was still no bridge at New Orleans. That year, Jay Gould died, removing one of the important backers of a proposed bridge. The following year, the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that was to last four years, obliterated the railroads’ and other investors’ ability to finance any large projects. The bridge effort was dead for the time being.
In the first decade of the 20th century, there was a renaissance of bridge building in America. Steel bridges were going up, bigger and safer than before. Still, at the busy port of New Orleans, there was no bridge. In 1908, an amateur—actually a professional railroader—came up with a novel design for a bridge that would not really be a bridge.
William Blanchard, a 32-year-old conductor for the New Orleans Terminal Railroad running between New Orleans and Chalmette, designed a tubular “underwater bridge.” Not a tunnel, since it would not be underground, but a submerged tube. It would consist of a longitudinal tube or cylinder made of steel and other materials, with concrete on the exterior. The tube would be submerged about 55 feet below the surface of the river, to provide a deep navigation channel and to get enough water pressure to “obviate the necessity of erecting extensive foundations” at the river bottom. The tube would be designed “to afford a passage-way for railway, electric or other cars and vehicles and to be put to all the uses subserved by ordinary bridges.”
The main horizontal section of the tube would be “supported at each side of the river by foundations or supports consisting of pilings and concrete… and together with the pressure of water at a depth of 50 feet, more or less, will be ample to sustain the weight” of the tube. The bridge would have ventilating pipes extending from the center of the tube to and above the surface.
In 1909, Blanchard took off for New York and Boston to sell his idea to the financial houses. Investors, however, apparently considered the tubular bridge to be a pipe dream. It went nowhere.
Bridge Or Tunnel Committee
In 1916, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, with a fairly good spectrum of local and state political support, decided to get serious again about a railroad bridge. The Belt commission convened a Bridge or Tunnel Committee to study the best way to finally span the river. With a number of prominent civil engineers involved, the committee spent about three years coming up with a menu of river-crossing choices.
Early in the process, the U.S. Army engineers advocated a tunnel. They argued that the alluvial soil would not be a good foundation for a bridge, and the absence of high banks would mean very long inclined approaches. The Army said they were “not at all convinced that borings at Twelve Mile Point or at any other point near New Orleans have established the fact that piers can be erected without unusual difficulty.” The expected amount of train traffic would make a drawbridge inadvisable, but a high bridge would mean “long and exceedingly expensive approaches.” They said a tube would be less expensive, although it would not accommodate pedestrians and vehicles.
It might seem odd that, in what were still horse-and-buggy days, people thought they could do something as advanced as digging a tunnel under the Mississippi River. But civilian and military engineers believed it would be a simple matter of digging a trench and sinking prefabricated tunnel sections, instead of digging who-knows-how-deep to find a solid foundation for bridge piers.
In its 1919 report, the Bridge or Tunnel Committee suggested a tunnel design that would accommodate one track, to be used by electric locomotives. They proposed a tunnel location in the vicinity of Avondale, with the possibility of a second single-track tunnel to be built later well below Algiers Point, near Chalmette.
The committee also made some bridge proposals. One of them would have been what’s called a transbordeur, or an aerial transporter, sort of like a flying ferry suspended from a high structure. This would have given a high vertical clearance for tall ships, but without requiring long inclined approaches for trains. Train cars would be loaded onto the suspended gondola and carried across, just above the water. The committee suggested a location just below Algiers Point for the transbordeur, just upriver from the forthcoming Industrial Canal.
But the committee’s preferred proposal was for a cantilever double-track railroad bridge above Nine Mile Point. This is basically where the Huey P. Long Bridge would eventually be built, but the 1919 proposal was for a low-rise cantilever bridge with a draw span. Corthell had proposed a high-rise bridge back in 1892, but in 1919 the committee members simply could not imagine spending the millions of dollars necessary to build miles-long approaches for a high-clearance fixed-span bridge.
This was opposed by river transportation interests, and did not have the support of the Army engineers. Even with strong support from the local political establishment, this bridge was never approved.
While the railroads and the Army and the politicians argued over a railroad bridge, a private group came up with a plan for something much different. In 1927, right after the nationally disastrous Mississippi River flood, the Louisiana Highway Commission awarded a private franchise to the syndicate of George A. Hero and Allen S. Hackett to build, not a railroad bridge, but a most unusual toll bridge from Race Street in New Orleans to a point in Gretna.
Hackett was an engineer and bridge designer of some repute. Mariners on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway may recognize the Hero name from place names such as Hero Canal, and Hero’s Cut at the Algiers-Harvey Intersection. Hero was a New Orleans investor who had become famous (and wealthy) by developing large tracts of low-lying land on the West Bank using levees and drainage pumps.
Hero and Hackett came up with a design for a suspension bridge that would not require hard ground to anchor the suspension cables. Their plan was for the bridge to terminate at each end in a building occupying a 300-foot-square of ground and rising 135 feet into the air. These heavy concrete-and-steel buildings would house two interlaced spiral ramps to carry one-way streams of automobile traffic to and from the bridge.
So the spiral ramp buildings were to serve two purposes. They would eliminate the need for long approaches, but their sheer weight would also provide a firm anchorage for the bridge suspension cables. This is reminiscent of the 1869 proposal for pyramids described above.
Hackett’s design called for two bridge piers in the river, each 125 feet wide and 60 feet thick at the base, and sitting on a stratum of hard packed sand about 200 feet under the riverbed. The main span would be 1,760 feet.
Hero and Hackett estimated the cost of building this fanciful bridge at $10 million. They claimed to be saving the city and state about $3 million by using the spiral ramps, eliminating the need to buy miles and miles of real estate for conventional approach ramps.
This bridge proposal attracted the attention and support of politicians and the public in New Orleans and Gretna, as well as the Louisiana Highway Commission. It was considered a done deal.
Huey P. Long
Then Huey P. Long was elected governor of Louisiana. Long was perpetually at odds with the Old Regular political establishment in New Orleans, and he was determined to deprive the city of its bridge. He preferred to have vehicular lanes added to the railroad bridge upriver, outside the city limits.
The Corps of Engineers did approve a permit for the Hero-Hackett bridge in 1930, and President Hoover signed a bill granting the promoters until 1933 to erect the bridge. But by that time, the move to build the Public Belt bridge was started.
That’s the bridge that would eventually be named for Huey P. Long.
In April 1934, the federal Public Works Administration announced that it would not loan the $10 million necessary to get the spiral bridge started. The Hero-Hackett project was dropped. A few decades later, the more conservatively designed Greater New Orleans Bridge and the Crescent City Connection were built just a few hundred feet downriver from where the fanciful spiral towers might have been.
New Orleans might have had spiral towers, pyramids, tunnels, or hanging gondolas. For purposes of navigation and commerce, though, it might be just as well that the city ended up with the sturdy and long-lasting Huey P. Long and the Crescent City Connection instead.