The building of a city and the disaster that altered it.

In 1940, with the completion of the 183-foot span, along with a section of Texas 87 over the Neches River and the swing bridge over Cow Bayou, connecting Bridge City and Orange, the little community called Prairie View came into its own. Nesting between the south’s highest bridge, the Rainbow, and the state’s rare swing bridge, it was only fitting the name be changed to Bridge City.

Merging of two school districts, Prairie View and Winfree, was made possible by what is now the Historical Swing Bridge.

The modern, thriving young town in no way resembled the sparsely settled farming and ranching area that it sprang from. The community rapidly became a new suburban development for those not caring for city life.

As the population increased so did business. Churches were established and schools built. Land that had lain fallow, with only crawfish chimneys dotting the surface, were drained and developed into valuable real estate.

With the opening of the improved six-lane section of the highway through the heart of the community business boomed. After a couple of abortive tries, the people made it official and incorporated.

A mayor and city council were elected. P.M. “Red” Wood was the first mayor.

In 1947, residents voted to make the school district independent, and approved a bond issue for a building program. Tax assessments were set at $2,122-809 for 1948 to support the $140,000 bond program. Allen Hebert was president of the school board and Goleman and Rolfe, Houston architects, were hired to draw up plans for a new school to be built on Texas 87 about a half-mile south of the swing bridge on Cow Bayou.

In later years bitter controversy between members of the school board literally separated the town, and this situation finally necessitated the intervention of law enforcement to prevent violence at the board meetings. A court decision solved part of the problem.

Happily, the BCISD today is a well-run school system.

During these first years of meaningful growth, the citizens celebrated each year with a community picnic which attracted thousands and often featured notables in state and national politics.

One example, in 1948, Frank Hustmyre, 128th district court judge, introduced the honored guest and Rev. W.E. Hassler, pastor of the Port Neches Methodist Church was master of ceremonies. County officials in attendance included county judge Sid Caillavet,

tax-assessor collector O.D. Butler, county attorney Graham Bruce, county treasurer J.A. “Ned” Cooper, county clerk Joe Runnels and members of commissioners’ court.

Tick Granger Sr. was the Precinct 3 commissioner and sometimes provided rodeo-type entertainment for the picnic. His son Thomas “Tick” Granger later served in the same position. The Bar-Nothing Ranch Girls came from Anahuac to entertain at the affair on Cow Bayou. Fun and games came after a family style dinner was served. Games included pole climbing, catching a greased pig, as well as sack and potato races, bubble gum contest, foot races, penny grabs, a beauty contest and a husband-calling contest. There was also horseshoe pitching and volley ball. The old and young alike joined in the business of sealing their bonds of friendship for another year. There was singing, laughter and more singing, along with giving thanks for living in such a great community.

There was a nightclub on the south of town called B.O. Sparkles and Joe Bailey ran another by the Cow Bayou bridge. Fred Bailey ran one near Lake Sabine and the Silver Slipper, established by my father Clay in 1928, was in a similar operation on Lake Street.

That week, in 1959, the Bridge City Chamber of Commerce was established. Jay Eshbach served as first president. The chamber has been of primary importance in the growth and development of Bridge City. This week, in 2009 on Thursday, the chamber will celebrate its 50th anniversary at its annual banquet. Shortly after the chamber formed, Bridge City got its own hometown newspaper when Walter Gaston established The Penny Record. The paper still services the community and its trade area today. It is the advertising media for its businesses while highlighting its citizens and community happenings.

Back in 1948, my father coined the phrase “Jewel of the Gulf Coast” when referring to Bridge City. The city was truly living up to its potential. Business was thriving and homes were being built on every available piece of land. Bridge City’s elevation averages between eight feet and 11 feet above sea level, one of the highest on the Gulf Coast. No one expected what happened on Sept. 13, 2008.

Bridge City and the growth it had enjoyed was totally devastated when a surge from Hurricane Ike came ashore in the wee hours and left in its wake an entire community that would need total rebuilding. It spared very little.

Many of the old timers who had helped make a prairie settlement into a first class city have moved away. Even though most of the city was not in a flood zone and most homeowners had hurricane insurance, providers got together and all refused to pay using a technicality stating, “The wind driven surge was flood water, not caused by the hurricane, damage to homes was caused by rising water.”

I was honored last January to be named Citizen of the Year and in my acceptance speech I reflected on the past and painted a rosy picture for the future. This year I turn the honor over to mayor of the city, Kirk Roccaforte. He has been a leader to hold our city together and lend optimism to fellow citizens that face a dire situation and a city that must be rebuilt board by board. Incidentally, the first Citizen of the Year was C.W. “Bubba” Hubbard, was also the man who filed the lawsuit and led the fight to incorporate the city. It’s appropriate that Kirk, as mayor, would be named.

The chamber’s more important than ever. After 50 years of existence, it is charged with helping our business community to rebound and become healthy again. Our son Mark, a native who has seen the good and the sad growing up in a small community once busting at the seams and now needing more support than ever by the chamber, will become the new president. The Chamber of Commerce has been a guiding force through the years. Today the job is more serious than ever. I wish it a successful 50th year and beyond.