Group seeks park on Cow Bayou waterfront
People these days are turning to celebrating their local history and heritage. For Bridge City, that means focusing on Cow Bayou and the old swing bridge that gave the town its name.
Now, the Historical Museum of Bridge City Association is trying to acquire land on the bayou by the swing bridge to turn into a community park. The conception for the park includes a boardwalk, recreation areas, places to watch water sports like skiing, and an amphitheater.
The chosen site is about five acres of land east of Highway 87 where the old Joe Bailey’s Fish Camp was from the 1940s until it burned in 1970. The fish camp was one of the first businesses in town and a landmark.
Mark Dunn, a native of Bridge City, said the group is working through the Historical Museum which already is organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit group with tax-exempt status. The group will be able to accept donations and work to get grants for the park area.
Dunn said the board of directors has already hired a grant writer to find money to develop the waterfront project. The project could meet grant requirements in several different areas, including historic preservation, water recreation, coastal preservation and tourism.
Bridge City City Council members have voiced support for the project. Dunn said City Manager Jerry Jones and Mayor Kirk Roccaforte have talked to the owner of the land along with representatives of the community to acquire the property. The land has been vacant since Joe Bailey’s business burned 40 years ago.
Dunn loves the history and heritage of Bridge City. He worked to save the 1940 swing bridge that was designated for demolition as the Texas Department of Transportation was ready to build a new bridge.
The swing bridge is now one of only two similar bridges left in the state. Dunn’s effort got the Bridge City bridge a designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dunn said Bridge City acquired its name because of the swing bridge, and not because of the Rainbow Bridge, which opened in 1938.
The planned park will pay tribute to the unique history of Bridge City and, the group hopes, attract tourists.
Dunn quotes the Texas Historical Commission about how heritage tourism can draw visitors to places that have preserved their history, like the old bridge and the waterfront.
He wants to have a community fundraiser at the waterfront park site next August to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the bridge opening.
Before Highway 87 and the swing bridge opened in 1941, travelers from Orange to Port Arthur had to go a longer route that went through the Orangefield area and over to what is now West Roundbunch Road.
The community was known as Prairie View and had settlers as far back as the 1830s, before Texas became an independent republic, according to a history by Charlotte Chaisson.
Until the Rainbow Bridge over the Neches River opened in 1938, people had to take a ferry across the river from Orange County to Jefferson County. The street leading up to the ferry has been called Lake Street, Ferry Road or Bailey Road, after the family that has owned property there for nearly a century.
The site where the waterfront park is planned was once Joe Bailey’s bait and boat business. He was one of the sons of the original Baileys that had a restaurant and service station by the ferry.
Those original business owners were Henry and Maria Bailey, who survived the infamous 1900 Galveston storm. They moved to what is now Bridge City and opened their restaurant-store on July 4, 1923. They had captive customers who waited for hours to cross the Neches on the ferry.
Son Joe Bailey had the fish camp on Cow Bayou. Another son, Fred, later ran the original Bailey business which ended up having a second floor dance hall. Then another son, Rob, had Rob Bailey’s Fish Camp on the end of Lake Street.
Dunn recalls hanging out at Joe Bailey’s as a kid, like many other kids in town, and having fun in the summer.
“We all remember the days when you could just drive there and go swimming and jump off the bridge,” he said.
These days, bridge jumping will be prohibited and likely swimming won’t be permitted. But the waterfront park will give kids and families a place to go once more to enjoy Cow Bayou, which is the heart of Bridge City.