Heart of Louisiana: Huey P. Long Bridge still a magnificent feat

EDITOR'S NOTE: The American Society of Civil Engineers recently designated the Huey P. Long Bridge a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.  Dave McNamara paid tribute to the bridge in this Heart of Louisiana report from Dec. 14, 2010.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the New Orleans area took a giant leap forward in its transportation system. That's when the Huey P. Long Bridge opened in Jefferson Parish. In 1935, it was the only highway or railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg.

"The Huey P is one of the great railroad bridges and to some degree one of the great bridges in the United States and the world," said William Conway, chairman of Modjeski and Masters, the bridge engineers that designed the bridge.

Before the Huey P. Long Bridge opened on a chilly December morning in 1935, the only way cars and trains to cross the Mississippi River at New Orleans was by ferry. The nearest bridge was 250 miles to the north at Vicksburg.

But planning for a New Orleans span began 50 years earlier. In 1892, the Southern Pacific Railroad proposed this high level bridge. But decades passed before engineers figured out how to support a massive rail bridge on the soft, silty river bottom. Karl Terzaghi, an engineer for the Public Belt Railroad, had the answer.

"He figured out how deep the foundations in the river should be and what load could be put on them with safety," Conway said.

The bridge was built in just three years, during the height of the Great Depression, by crews that worked around the clock in perilous conditions.

"Back then, there was no use of safety nets, hadn't yet been invented," Conway explained. " The first use of those was on the Golden Gate Bridge a few years later in San Francisco. So men, if they fell, they were gone. "

Before work began on the railroad bridge, Governor Huey Long stepped in and expanded the project to include a highway on either side of the railroad. The narrow lanes have made the bridge legendary.

"By our current standards 9 foot lanes are very, very narrow. They're not allowed by current standards at all," Conway said.

The engineers who designed this bridge were very cautious in their calculations. Just to be on the safe side, they overdesigned the bridge, making it much stronger than it needed to be.

"Because of their inability to calculate things as precisely as we can do now, they used, and intelligently used a larger factor of safety that we have now," Conway said.

Three months before the bridge is finished, Long is assassinated. At dedication ceremonies December 16, 1935, the bridge is named for Long. Dignitaries ride the first train across the span. Long's widow, Rose Long, cuts the ribbon. There is a pageant with an Indian runner, a colonial rider, and a stage coach crossing the bridge, as a marching band opens the Huey P. Long Bridge to the public.

Retired broadcaster Alec Gifford was just a boy at the time, but he still remembers the excitement of crossing the bridge on opening day in a rumble seat.

"When we started up the bridge and I realized I was going to be 200 feet above the river, no I had never been 200 feet above anything in my life. And just seeing that, and the looking out and seeing the river down below and the settlements below the area, it was quite an experience, it really was," Gifford remembers

The Times Picayune wrote this about the opening of the world's longest railroad bridge: "In majestic silence, it takes its place amongst the pyramids, the obelisk and the pantheon."

Now, at age 75, the Huey Long is undergoing an expansion unlike anything ever done before. The giant piers have been widened to expand the bridge from four to six lanes. And the rebuild is taking place while the span remains open to traffic.

All of this is possible because of the strength of the original design.

"I'm still impressed, I am. I had a partner, he led the inspection of the bridge for some years, and he would come in from that inspection and say, Bill, he said, that Hue