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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Landmark 1938 bridge to be closed for maintenance


Last updated 3/26/2024 at 9:59pm

Orange County's most famous landmark is set to get its first facelift in nearly 30 years and the project will require a major traffic change.

The Rainbow Bridge will be getting "extensive maintenance" beginning in the late summer or early fall, the Texas Department of Transportation has announced. Traffic on the bridge from Bridge City to Port Arthur will be closed during the project, which is estimated to take 18 months.

During that time, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, which usually takes one-way traffic from Port Arthur to Bridge City, will be made to accommodate two-way traffic. Two lanes from Orange County to Jefferson County, and two lanes from Jefferson County to Orange County.

During that time, TxDOT will divert the traffic lanes leading to the Rainbow Bridge across the median to travel onto the Veterans Memorial Bridge. To change the traffic to the enter the Veterans bridge and then to change traffic back to the proper lanes at the end of the bridge, TxDOT will make "S" turns.

However, the Bridge City City Council is officially asking TxDOT to change the detour plans. (see separate story)

Southern Road and Bridge LLC was awarded a $10.9 million contract for the project.

The last time the Rainbow Bridge had major maintenance was nearly 30 years ago. The two-year-plus project ended in October 1997 when a re-dedication ceremony for the 1938 bridge was held. The companion Veterans Memorial Bridge was opened in 1990.

The Rainbow Bridge opened to great fanfare and national attention in 1938 and is still to this day, the highest bridge in the Southern United States. It has a Texas Historical Marker and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The bridge was considered a major boost to car and truck traffic along the Gulf Coast when it was opened to cross the Neches River from Orange County into Jefferson County. When construction began in 1936, Bridge City did not exist and was the community of Prairie View. A ferry at the end of Ferry Road, later called Bailey Road, took vehicles back and forth across the two counties. The name Bailey Road is common because the Bailey family built a store-dance hall near the Orange County entrance to the ferry.

Even though people knew a highway bridge was needed, citizens and officials in Orange, Beaumont, and Port Arthur argued for years. People in Beaumont wanted to be assured a bridge would not hamper any ship traffic into its port. The compromise was that the bridge would be tall enough to handle the tallest ship in the U.S. Navy, which at the time had a ship with a tie-down for a dirigible. The bridge has a clearance underneath of 177 feet.

The grand opening of the bridge was held in September 1938, 17 months after the Golden Gate Bridge opened in San Francisco.

The New York Times to announce the opening of the bridge described it as "a valuable new link in the Texas highway system and shortens travel distances between Gulf coastal points."

According to the story, the bridge cost $2.75 million ($60.72 million in 2024), with money coming from the federal Public Works Administration and Jefferson County.

The Texas bridge did not have land above the water for the roadway to cross like the Golden Gate Bridge has. "As a result, the bridge rises like a rainbow-like arc from flat prairie with an elevation of a few feet above sea level," the story reads. That may be the first reference comparing the bridge to a rainbow.

The bridge opened without an official name because people in the three cities could not agree. Most people called it the "Port Arthur-Orange Bridge." However, it seems residents in Orange called it the "Port Arthur Bridge" and those in Port Arthur called it the "Orange Bridge."

In 1957, 19 years after it opened, a Lions Club in Port Arthur held a contest to name the bridge and a six-year-old girl won a $50 savings bond for her name "Rainbow Bridge," its official name since.

The New York Times 1938 story reported the new bridge rose to a height of 230 feet, taller than a 20-story building. It was 176 feet above water, or 43 feet more than the Brooklyn Bridge, and 41 feet more than the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River at New Orleans.

The steel truss bridge was built on eight caisson piers sunk 90 to 105 feet below the water. Each caisson had two separate cylindrical concrete piers.

The day before the opening of the new bridge in 1938, the Orange Leader reported that stunt man Ogden Smith was going to jump off the bridge, though the stunt was not approved by the celebration committee or on the official program. Ogden in 1936 during the Texas Centennial celebration dived 1,100 feet into a tank of water.

However, his jump off the bridge was a historic failure. The follow-up story reported the stunt man broke both legs in his jump.


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