COW BAYOU BRIDGE
In August 1940 the State of Texas built a bridge over Cow Bayou and six miles of approaches on Highway 87 at a cost of approximately $386,000.
About 3,000 people attended the formal opening. Miriam David of Orange cut the ribbon, her father, J. H. David, Sr. was the master of ceremonies. The Maroon and Gold Band of Port Arthur’s Thomas Jefferson High School performed. The county judge at the time was F. W. Hustmyre.
The original bridge crossing Cow Bayou was made of steel and timber and was only 17 feet wide. A fatal accident on the bridge in 1937 prompted the state to build the current swing bridge.
The flat, concrete bridge joining this bedroom community to the rest of Orange County doesn’t seem very impressive.
It sits in the shadow of a newer, taller southbound bridge on its West Side, and motorists traveling north as they leave Bridge City on Texas 87 can hardly tell that the swamps of Cow Bayou are just 12 feet below.
The only immediate visible sign that this bridge is different from any other is the red and white faded gates on each side of the bridge, held back by chains and an old shack in the middle of the bridge.
Those gates signal that the bridge is one of the last of a dying breed - a swing bridge that rests on a central concrete pier and pivots at a 90-degree angle to allow watercraft to pass on either side of the bridge. The bridge hasn’t seen regular boat traffic since the 1960's.
The department of transportation has wanted to replace the bridge with one identical to the adjacent bridge, which was built in 1972 to alleviate traffic snarls on the swing bridge, but the department has found a slight kink in its proposed $6.6 million project.
The flat, concrete bridge is special.
It is one of two of its kind and age in the entire state. The bridge, completed in 1941, is eligible for listing in the national register of historic places. The only other one like it is over the Sabine River in Deweyville.
Moving the bridge doesn’t seem to be an option because it is a single slab of concrete that weighs several tons.
An attempt in July 2003 to open the bridge was plagued by problems and led to electricians spending two months crawling under and around the old Cow Bayou Bridge replacing the electrical systems, which cost about $72,000. Because Cow Bayou is a navigable waterway, federal regulations prohibit it from being blocked by an immovable bridge.
Opening and closing of the bridge is an experience in patience.
The bridge sits on what is basically a huge geared-turn table that has four wedge-shaped steel pins weighing more than 150 pounds each. Every corner has a pin holding the bridge in place when it is not in operation.
Hot weather can cause the metal in the bridge to expand making it harder to pry the section apart when the huge electric motors begin operation.
Workers are placed at every corner keeping an eye on the pins as the bridge is closed and opened trying to make the bridge fit perfectly and safe for traffic.
When the bridge starts moving, workers call in instructions over the radio to an operator in the small booth on the bridge. The operator must throw a variety of old switches and pull levers in response to control the bridge. The motors locking the pins into place are individually operated as well.