Dave Rogers – For The Record

It’s almost time for the big unveiling.

A two-year paint job for the historic Rainbow Bridge between Bridge City and Port Arthur is on schedule to wrap up near the end of 2016 and give commuters traveling Texas’ tallest bridge a traffic-cone free ride.

At least for another two decades.

“We do this every 20 years,” Sarah Dupre, public information officer for Texas Department of Transportation, said of the overhaul for the 1.5-mile structure first opened in 1938. “The process consists of completely taking off any paint and rust on the bridge, doing any maintenance that’s required and completely repainting.”

The project carries a price tag of $26.5 million. Beginning construction 80 years ago, the Rainbow Bridge was built at a cost of $3 million — $50 million in today’s dollars.

This update takes so long for several reasons:

First, there’s a lot to paint.

Experts say you could build a battleship with the amount of steel in the bridge. And its height – spanning 176 feet above the river – was stipulated to allow the tallest U.S. Navy ship at the time to pass underneath.

Then there’s the disruption of traffic patterns.

Since the addition in 1991 of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge 400 feet downstream, Texas Highway 87 has split travel with two northbound lanes from Port Arthur to Bridge City on the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge while southbound Bridge City to Port Arthur traffic crossed on the Rainbow Bridge’s two lanes.

While bridge repainting is ongoing, TxDOT has kept one of the Rainbow Bridge’s two lanes open during peak driving times (rush hours and most weekends), and changed the nearby Veteran’s Memorial Bridge to a two-way roadway.

Until the project is complete, the Rainbow Bridge will be closed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays to allow workers full access.

“Some weekends it is closed, too,” Dupre said. “Regardless of whether the bridge is open or not, there’s the option (for Port Arthur-bound traffic) to take the Veteran’s Bridge.”

Environmental protection is a big concern. Drapes around and under the work areas prevent sandblasted paint and other metals from the project from finding their way into the waterway and marshland.

The scaffolds and wraps on the bridge are nothing like what Henry Bailey remembers of his first encounters with the Rainbow Bridge.

He couldn’t get past its steep five percent incline.

“I used to have nightmares about the bridge a lot,” he said. “I’m riding in the back of a pickup truck, and the bridge is getting steeper and steeper. It looks like it goes straight up and you can’t get down.

“It’s really foggy; just eerie. I’m riding back there – way up there – and thinking I’m going to bounce out of this truck.”

Bailey grew up in and around his family’s Bailey’s Fish Camp, which was located at the Bridge City end of the Rainbow Bridge.

He was born in 1945, too early to remember life before the Goliath spanner. But he heard plenty about the ferry that preceded it as Highway 87’s route between Bridge City and Port Arthur.

“My father (Rob Bailey) was the guy that ran the ferry,” Henry Bailey said. “He piloted the tug boat that pulled the ferry.”

Dryden Ferry crossed the Neches River not far from where the bridge took its place. It operated from about 1913 until 1938, according to historian W.T. Block, and was the last ferry on the lower Neches River.

It could carry 10-12 cars and could make the 1,000-foot crossing in as little as 15 minutes.

Or as long as four or five hours, depending on river traffic and conditions. Traffic jams on either side could just go on and on.

So could the politics involved in getting approval for the bridge, which finally came from Austin in November 1934 in a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Miriam A. “Pappy” Ferguson.

Cost was split between TxDOT and the U.S. Public Works Administration.

Work began in early 1936. More than 11,000 tons of steel, 31,000 cubic yards of concrete, 125,000 board feet of lumber and 19,000 gallons of paint went into the effort. Six workers died.

The bridge was dedicated Sept. 8, 1938, the ribbon cut by Mary Elizabeth Mills, daughter of Jefferson County Commissioner H.O. Mills.

Gov. James Allred highlighted a ceremony at Port Arthur’s Yellow Jacket Stadium that featured Orange Mayor William Lea, one of the bridge’s first backers.

A Pinehurst celebration featured appearances by military bands and high school bands from Port Arthur, Beaumont and Lake Charles.

Commissioners in Jefferson County and Orange County didn’t agree on a name for the Highway 87 bridge at first, later compromising with the name “Port Arthur-Orange Bridge.”

It was named Rainbow Bridge in a 1957 contest of the North Port Arthur Lions Club. Six-year-old Christy McClintock of Port Arthur said she came up with the name because she thought the bridge was shaped like a rainbow.

The bridge’s height was owed to an insistence by Beaumont officials that it be tall enough to accommodate the USS Patoka, the Navy’s tallest dirigible tender ship.

Dirigibles, what we now call blimps, were used for aerial reconnaissance by the Germans in World War I and the U.S. pursued its own “airship” program in the war’s aftermath. A 150-foot mooring mast was constructed on the deck of the Patoka.

But the dirigible program was scrapped before the bridge opened and the Patoka never sailed under it.

The Rainbow Bridge was barely 20 years old when officials began a concentrated effort for a new bridge. They’d have started sooner if they knew red tape would take 30-plus years to see it built after it was authorized in 1959.

The Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, nearly two miles long and nearly twice as wide as the Rainbow Bridge, opened as the first cable-stayed suspension bridge in the state of Texas in 1991.

It cost $22.8 million — $44 million in today’s dollars – and its roadway stands 143 feet over the river below.

With the new bridge open, the Rainbow Bridge was closed and refurbished in 1992. Besides sandblasting, repairing and repainting, the roadway was widened.