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Table of Contents

List of Figures

Acknowledgements

Introduction

History of Oklahoma Highway Bridges
• The Earliest Roads and Bridges
• The Drive For Good
Roads

• A New Era in Bridge Building
• The State Road System and Federal Aid
• The Shifting Direction of Bridge Building
• The Strains of Depression and War
• Meeting New Challenges Since WWII

The Historic Bridges of Oklahoma

Endnotes

Bibliography

Appendices




The Strains of Depression and War

The completion of the 21st Street Bridge in Tulsa did not bring forth the usual festivities reserved for such occasions. Instead, the public's attention was focused on the economic miseries of the country as it skidded into the Great Depression.  Beyond that, the Sooner State shared with its neighbors in the region an additional disaster brought on by a drought that ruined farmers and produced the Dust Bowl.  Oklahoma highways now became the way out for migrants anxiously heading elsewhere in search of jobs.
  The depression also threatened the great expansion in highway construction that took place between 1924 and 1932.  New priorities would be set under pressure from diminishing state revenues and by the need to weigh decisions on road and bridge projects by the number of unemployed people who might be given work.  Federal aid for "make work" programs set up by President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal administration would also be supplemented by special grants-in-aid, such as for drought relief, that reached Oklahoma during the thirties.48
  Considering the tangle of federal agencies and programs, it is difficult to determine how much highway-related relief arrived in the state.  However, grants from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937 alone amounted to more than $4,000,000.  With the emphasis on work relief, primary attention went to projects that graded and graveled roadways, built small drainage structures, and improved roadsides through clean-up and beautification efforts.  The highway commission observed that "few" bridges were provided for in WPA budgets for 1936 through 1938.  When bridge projects had WPA support they usually involved repairs and renovations, but the agency also provided funds for dismantling and moving trusses (Figure 36), constructing small concrete slab and girder spans, or installing masonry arches in recreational areas.49  The Civilian Conservation Corps occasionally added small rustic spans to state and city parks (Figure 37).



The truss bridges could be redily relocated gave them an advantage over other types.  Oklahoma made widescale use of this feature.  This Pratt truss has been moved to a creek near Watonga.
Figure 36.  The truss bridges could be redily relocated gave them an advantage over other types.  Oklahoma made widescale use of this feature.  This Pratt truss has been moved to a creek near Watonga.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built Bridge 62N3570E1550001 in an Ada city park in 1934.

Figure 37.  The Civilian Conservation Corps built Bridge 62N3570E1550001 in an Ada city park in 1934.


Figure 38.  The Stilwell overpass, Bridge 0102 1232 X, shown in 1933, reflects the emphasis on replacing dangerous railroad crossings during the 1930s.
    The Stilwell overpass, Bridge 0102 1232 X, shown in 1933, reflects the emphasis on replacing dangerous railroad crossings during the 1930s.



Regular federal aid grants bolstered by new money for national recovery, special projects, and emergency assistance enabled Oklahoma to expand its bridge building activities in some particular areas.  Mounting concern about the dangers at railroad crossings, for instance, resulted in congressional funding to build grade separations.  A program giving railroads and governments joint responsibility led to new structures, from monolithic girder spans to stylish concrete arches, that removed many hazardous crossings on state roads.  Illustrating this effort, an attractive open spandrel concrete arch was constructed over the tracks of the Kansas City Southern Railroad near Stilwell in 1934 (Figure 38).  In an even bigger project, Oklahoma spent part of the $5,004,711 earmarked for grade separations in 1936 to build a 1,345-foot overpass, with a K-truss main span, to carry U. S. 62 over the Frisco Railroad near Okmulgee.50



Bridge 2106 1883 X, known as the Sailboat Bridge, was a major project of the depression era.
Figure 39.  Bridge 2106 1883 X, known as the Sailboat Bridge, was a major project of the depression era.



  The K-truss in the Frisco overpass was a standard design that became an increasingly familiar sight on state highways during the 1930s.  State engineers liked this through truss for the way it controlled secondary stresses, making it a sturdy and predictable design and a good choice for bigger projects.  Bridge engineer J. A. L. Waddell proved wrong in his prediction of 1925 that "its inferior appearance will probably prevent its being used to any great extent".51  Oklahoma in fact made considerable use of the K-truss for about thirty years.
  Some of Oklahoma's largest bridges today have their origins in the 1930s.  Emergency funds made available by Washington for building public works combined with more competitive bidding from firms in a depressed industry encouraged the construction of several major projects.  As evidence of this trend during the decade, Oklahoma added twenty-four bridges, each of whose total length exceeded 700 feet.  The Red River alone saw the addition of three principal structures: a 1,242-foot span at Colbert in 1931, one of 2,108 feet near Yuba in 1938, and another of 2,255 feet in 1939 near Waurika.  Big bridges also went up over the Neosho River at Miami in 1935 and across the Arkansas River at Ralston in 1935 and Bixby in 1939.  The Keliher Construction Company of Dallas combined a K-truss and thirteen deck trusses in 1933 to carry U. S. 70 over the Kiamichi River near Hugo, the bridge measuring 1,654 feet long.
  Oklahoma completed two of its biggest projects near the end of the decade.  To replace the toll bridge built by Dorset Carter in 1911 between Lexington and Purcell, the state signed one of its largest single bridge contracts ($663,000) to build a 3,671-foot deck truss on the site in 1938.  This project revealed an occasional advantage enjoyed by Oklahoma bridge builders: during low water periods the river shrunk to trickle in the the center allowing concrete mixers and truck cranes to operate from the riverbed itself.  Also in 1938, the Grand River Dam Authority utilized fifteen deck trusses, fabricated by the Virginia Bridge Company, for main spans on its "Sailboat Bridge" over Grand Lake near Grove, the structure stretching for 2,550 feet (Figure 39).  Emergency relief funds from federal agencies assisted both the Lexington and Grand Lake bridges.52




Figure 40.  Life Magazine's picture of the "Red River Bridge War," showing the Durant-Denison "free bridge," Bridge 0702 0000 WX, closed by a Texas Ranger.

  <i>Life Magazine's</i> picture of the "Red River Bridge War," showing the Durant-Denison "free bridge," Bridge 0702 0000 WX, closed by a Texas Ranger.



  Oklahoma bridges attracted national and even international notoriety in the 1930s not because of their number or size but for a seriocomic episode that occurred on the Red River.  Since the Red forms the border with Texas, meaning that both states had to agree on bridge policy--always administratively difficult--the river became a favorite location for private toll bridge operators who wanted a share of the expanding traffic between the two states.  Investor-owned suspension bridges, several of them built and promoted by the Austin Bridge Company of Dallas, stood along the river near such towns as Waurika, Courtney, Grady, and Idabel.  However, toll bridges became a subject of political reform in Oklahoma and elsewhere during the late 1920s, giving rise to efforts aimed at spending public funds to buy out their owners and "free" the bridges.53
  A legal battle erupted in 1931 when Benjamin Colbert's old Red River Bridge Company contended that Texas had failed to buy out its rights to the location and obtained a federal injunction to prevent the opening of a new public bridge nearby on U. S. 69 and 75 that ran between Durant, Oklahoma, and Denison, Texas.  The dispute soon enveloped both state governors.  In a series of moves and countermoves Oklahoma's Alfalfa Bill Murray called out the National Guard to open the public bridge while Texas Governor Ross Sterling dispatched Texas Rangers to the site to uphold the court order (Figure 40).  Although the conflict peacefully ended in a few weeks with a Houston judge dismissing the injunction against the free bridge, the tense moments had made national news and supposedly led Adolf Hitler to believe that domestic discord was eating away at America just as events in Europe began to take shape leading to the Second World War.54
  The entrance of the United States into that war produced a rapid succession of new restrictions on road and bridge building throughout the nation.  In December, 1941, the president cancelled all federally-assisted highway projects which had not yet gone out for bids, and the government soon after created a War Production Board to decide which projects met priorities for national defense.  In Oklahoma the agency halted twenty-four projects in 1942 declaring them non-essential.  Shortages appeared in manpower, machinery, and material, with the Highway Department's bridge division feeling the impact "first and most acutely" in the scarcity of timber and steel.55  Projects remained uncompleted and maintenance deferred even as military and industrial traffic subjected the road system to greater than unusual wear and tear (Figure 41).  Making do with what he had, State Bridge Engineer Homer X. White used more concrete to make some essential culverts and bridges, but with little or none of the usual steel reinforcement.  He also salvaged old steel trusses for replacement parts and made use of abandoned railway bridges, barely keeping ahead of those people who saw old bridges as prime candidates in scrap drives for the war effort.  The extent of the cutbacks showed in figures released by the Highway Department of less money awarded for highway projects in fiscal 1943-1944 than in any year since 1922.56
  Federal authorities insisted that road projects be limited to those serving military camps, defense industries, and sources of vital raw materials, which in Oklahoma's case included some oilfields.  Under these rules, the state built bridges in Oklahoma City to serve a Douglas Aircraft factory as well as on rural roads leading to the Tulsa Bomber Plant near the city airport, Camp Gruber southeast of Muskogee, and Fort Sill at Lawton where the army had its artillery school.  Damaging floods along the Arkansas River persuaded the War Production Board to allow some emergency bridge work, including replacing one span of a through truss bridge at Webbers Falls.  Overall, however, the department of highways built only sixty-five bridges between July 1, 1942 and June 30, 1944.57




Figure 41.  The war and heavy oilfield traffic took its toll of truss bridges erected for use by horse and wagon.

  The war and heavy oilfield traffic took its toll of truss bridges erected for use by horse and wagon.


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