Historic Preservation: ‘A Tale Of Two Bridges’
The 1938 swing bridge over the Sabine River at Deweyville and the 1940 Cow Bayou Bridge in Bridge City will both be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as historic bridges. The nominations of the “sister bridges” will be presented to the Texas Historical Commission this fall. Both are rare swing bridges, the only two like them in the state.
National status would recognize the bridges as historic treasures, protecting them from any future proposed demolition and making them eligible for renovation grants.
The Newton County Historical Commission and Bridge City Citizens for Historic Preservation are preparing the paperwork to be sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Parks Service.
Ed Gallagher with the Newton group has done extensive research on the Deweyville bridge.
“We have a Cemetery Committee here [in Deweyville] and we started looking into national nomination on some of them,” he said. “We had the county courthouse and Burr’s Ferry Bridge submitted to the register. We also nominated a log cabin here. I forget the name of it, but by the time we got it approved it had been torn down.
“The Deweyville Swing Bridge is the oldest and longest highway bridge in the state. Construction started in 1936, and the bridge opened in ‘38. [The Texas Department of Transportation] has been very helpful. Their historical branch in Austin sent me all the paperwork.” Other valuable sources, Gallagher said, have been Mark Cox and others with Orange’s TxDOT office.
Gallagher is a retired U.S. Marshal. His wife Vicki works in the gift shop at Shangri La Botanical Gardens, and he volunteers there.
With TxDOT considering four-laning Texas 12 from Vidor to Deweyville, it’s important to save the bridge, Gallagher said. A survey by the Texas Highway Department in 2006 showed that about 4,100 vehicles cross the bridge every 24 hours; or about 1.5 million a year.
“If they put a new highway in they’ll have to go around it,” he said. “They won’t be able to tear it down.”
The last time the Deweyville bridge was opened for regular use was around 1968, Gallagher said. In 1995, it was opened to allow a commercial boat to travel south to the Gulf of Mexico. According to Gallagher’s research, it reportedly took three days to get the swing portion working; later the Coast Guard designated that part of the Sabine as a non-navigable waterway and posted signs to that effect.
In 1938, officials from Texas and Louisiana dedicated the Deweyville bridge (which cost $120,000), making speeches and serving free barbecue.
The 1940 Cow Bayou Bridge, another rare type of swing device, was slated for demolition in early 2007. But after hearing from Bridge City Citizens for Historic Preservation and others, the idea was scrapped by state officials; and a little more than a year later TxDOT completed the first of a three-phase rehabilitation project to restore the bridge to its original condition.
That decision opened the door to begin the process of nominating the Cow Bayou Bridge to the National Register of Historic Places. According to the citizens’ committees archives, large watercraft on Cow Bayou were frequent for more than 30 years. The operation of the Cow Bayou swing bridge was a regular occurrence and considered a routine part of life in early Bridge City.
But the fate of the Cow Bayou Bridge fell on hard times. In the early 1970s a new concrete span was built to accommodate large watercraft with two lanes for traffic crossing the bayou on South Texas 87. TxDOT also proposed to build a similar span next to it on Texas 87 northbound to replace the 1940 swing bridge. The years passed as the Cow Bayou Bridge, planned for demolition, lingered with minimal maintenance.
Earlier this year the bridge was swung open again for the replacement of a newly-fabricated but historically accurate center armor joint. Phase two will examine the swing bearing mechanism and restore its functionality. The final phase will be cosmetic.
Once restored, TxDOT foresees the service of the Cow Bayou Bridge to be a simple, one-man operation taking no longer than the time it takes for the watercraft to pass. But watercraft of that size are uncommon nowadays on Cow Bayou. For one fortunate enough to witness such an event, the opening of the rare swing bridge in Bridge City is a memorable glimpse back in time.
The bridge remains a functioning element of a modern transportation system and a victory for historic preservation and the enhancement of Orange County tourism.