The bridge that gave Bridge City its name
There’s been a lot of controversy over the Cow Bayou Swing Bridge for the past few years, but she has withstood every storm.
Construction on the bridge began shortly after the Rainbow Bridge was completed in 1938. The Cow Bayou Bridge allowed travelers a more direct route between Orange and Port Arthur.
Prior to the construction of the bridge, travelers would have to drive through Orangefield to reach Prairie View (Bridge City) and Port Arthur. In the early twentieth century, travel between Orange and Port Arthur was only possible by a 40 mile boat trip. In May 1926, Dryden’s Ferry provided a crossing at the Neches River and cut 27 miles off the trip.
There was much debate on whether the state should build an electric swing bridge or a hand-operated swing bridge at Cow Bayou. While the final decision is unclear, the Cow Bayou Swing Bridge was built with an electric motor that operated the swing span, the traffic gates and navigations lights, requiring only 10 minutes to open the bridge. The hand operations system was installed as a back-up in case of possible power failure.
The construction on the bridge was complete in 1940 and was part of the “Hug-the-Coast-Highway” project that began in Center (in Shelby County) and travels south along the Sabine River to Orange and on to Galveston. However, State Highway 87 between Sabine Pass and Galveston has been closed since the 1990s.
After its dedication on April 2, 1941, Prairie View became known as Bridge City. The new name was suggested by O. Eudale Granger since the community was between two bridges. The bridge also helped pave the way for the consolidation of the Prairie View and Winfree school districts, now known as Bridge City Independent School District.
“I remember as a child in the summer afternoons, we drive over the bridge and there were two or three boys jumping off the bridge” said Beverly Perry, long time Bridge City resident and co-chair of the Bridge City Citizens for Historical Preservation. “It always amazed me of what kind of guts it took for those kids to jump off into the water.”
In 1972, construction on an adjacent high-rise concrete bridge began. This new bridge carried traffic south on Hwy. 87 and the Cow Bayou Swing Bridge carried traffic north.
On Feb. 11, 1999, Steve Sadowsky, Historic Structures Specialist with the Environmental Affairs Division of the Texas Department of Transportation, wrote a letter to Jamie Wise of the Texas Historical Commission (THC) stating that a replacement of the Cow Bayou Bridge would be federally funded.
The replacement was based on an Oct. 31, 1996 inspection that revealed cracking, spalling, failing armor and expansion joints, surface and pack rust and the swing span was, at that time, inoperable, having been wedged at the joints after being turned 180 degrees. As a result, vessels taller than the 13-foot vertical clearance allowed by the swing bridge could not access the upper reaches of Cow Bayou, which is still considered a navigable waterway.
The following month, the THC conducted a project review regarding the Cow Bayou Bridge. Wise, the reviewer, told TxDOT that the Cow Bayou Bridge was (and still is) one of two rare types of swing bridges in Texas and that it was important to consider all options for its preservation.
While the both the THC and the February 1999 letter recognized that the bridge was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the THC stated that removal of the Cow Bayou Bridge would be an adverse effect under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The THC also stated that every effort should be made to preserve the bridge.
In December of 2006, TxDOT wrote a letter to former Bridge City Mayor Bobbie Burgess acknowledging plans to replace the swing bridge. In the letter, the design engineer mentioned the bridge’s eligibility for listing on the NRHP. The letter stated that TxDOT was ready to move forward with replacing the bridge with a high-rise concrete bridge but asked if there was any interest in preserving the bridge.
In early 2007, a small group of Bridge City citizens met to become the collective public voice for the bridge, known as the Bridge City Citizens for Historical Preservation. They began the process of nominating the Cow Bayou Bridge to the NRHP.
In February of 2007, the Historic Bridge Foundation wrote a letter to the Bridge City Citizens for Historic Preservation in support of the bridge’s preservation. In August of 2007 and at the request of the Historic Bridge Foundation, the Bridge City Citizens for Historic Preservation were granted a consulting party status for all proposed projects involving the Cow Bayou Bridge.
“The bridge has been a constant in Bridge City,” Perry said. “Not saving the bridge would not be anything close to tragic, but it is a part of Bridge City. Cow Bayou Bridge, along with the Rainbow Bridge, is why Prairie View was changed to Bridge City. It’s a part of the city’s history and that’s why Mark Dunn, myself and others were so enthused to save it. We would have lived through losing the bridge, but we would have been without some of our intricate history and there’s only one other bridge in the state like the Cow Bayou Swing Bridge.”
With local support for the bridge’s preservation, TxDOT revised their plans for replacement and in mid-2008 rehabilitation and construction began on the bridge.
“I was so adamant to save the bridge,” Perry said. “At the time, it wasn’t necessarily a popular project to be on. Everybody was saying that we needed a new bridge, but there was nothing wrong with our old bridge. It hadn’t been used in so long, but that was fixed by the state with very little difficulty and very little expense than what would have incurred had a new bridge to be built.”
The National Park Service officially named the Cow Bayou Bridge to the NRHP on May 10, 2010, joining the Rainbow Bridge, which was listed in 1996.
The Cow Bayou Bridge has already undergone two phases of rehabilitation and will so undergo her third and final phase soon.
The third round involves the rehabilitation of the swing bridge structure, pedestrian walkway, embankments, boat fender system, bridge control house (restoring it to the original 1940s look), repairs on the electrical and mechanical components, replacement of the swing span concrete deck and the installation of traffic safety systems (for full details, see the news story regarding the third phase of construction).
While many may feel inconvenienced by the closure and rehabilitation of the bridge, this project will save a piece Bridge City’s unique history.