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Today is July 12, 2020

Mississippi Seen

The span still stands

By Walt Grayson

The span still stands

The old Highway 80 Bridge at Vicksburg is 90 years old this year. The modern Interstate 20 Bridge is just beyond it.

Ninety years ago this year, for the first time you could drive a car from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the Southern United States without having to ferry across a river. Because in April 1930, the U.S. 80 Bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Vicksburg — finishing a dry, connected roadway from Tybee Island, Georgia to San Diego, California.

It was the only bridge across the Mississippi south of Memphis at the time. Five years later, the Huey P. Long Bridge opened in New Orleans. In 1940, the bridges at Greenville and Natchez opened.

Before bridges, you had to drive to the nearest ferry (there was a ferry at Vicksburg, but still…) and wait for it to finish its run across the river. Then you would unload on the other side, reload, chug back across the river, dock and unload again before you could get on.

But when they opened the Highway 80 Bridge, any time of the day or night, in only the amount of time it takes to drive a mile and a half, you were in Louisiana. It was a time machine. Well, a time-saving machine, at least.

The traffic lanes on the old bridge at Vicksburg are a little gamey. Both lanes together are only 18-feet wide. Ninety years ago, a nine-foot wide lane was plenty of room for a Model T. However, the first time I went over that bridge was in a Greyhound bus taking me to Fort Polk, Louisiana for U.S. Army basic training. As soon as we got on the bridge, the driver cut the wheels to the right and hugged the guard rail all the way across to make room for traffic going in the opposite direction. Halfway over, I decided basic training would be a breeze if I survived long enough to get there. (Turned out I was wrong, but that’s another story.)

Automobile traffic no longer uses the old bridge. It could. The structure is still sound. But several years ago, the bridge was closed while the approaches on both the east and the west ends were repaired. It was never reopened.

But the bridge is far from unused. There are railroad tracks next to the traffic lanes — tracks that are in constant use all day and all night. Those tracks have been in use for 90 years.

It is still the only railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in the state.

One other thing I find interesting is the old bridge is moving westward. There is a fault under the east bank of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and the bedrock on which the bridge is built has slipped toward Louisiana about 30 inches at the east end of the bridge over the 90 years of its existence. Not so much on the west end. But fault and all, the old Highway 80 Bridge is solid and sound and ready to stand another 90 years.

But hugging the guard rail while crossing it will scare the gajeebers out of you.

 

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” He lives in Brandon and is a Central Electric member. Contact him at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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