The Huey P. Long isn’t just a bridge. It was a game-changer.
Once upon a time, getting from one side of the Mississippi River to the other meant getting in a boat — or getting your feet wet. Then, on Dec. 16, 1936, a game-changer: The Huey P. Long Bridge was dedicated for rail and automotive traffic. A cantilevered truss bridge 4.4 miles long and towering 135 feet above the river, it was the first bridge to cross the river south of Vicksburg, Miss.
Built at a time when cars were significantly smaller than today, the “Huey P.” (as it is commonly known) originally boasted two traffic lanes in each direction, each just 9 feet wide. That made for a decidedly harrowing experience for drivers of wide-bodied modern vehicles. In 2013, a seven-year lane-widening project was competed, giving local motorists considerable breathing room — although many scarred drivers still shy from it.
- At the time of its completion, the Huey P. was the longest high-level railroad bridge in the world.
- The bridge was named for Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in Baton Rouge just three months before the bridge was dedicated.
- Even before the bridge was built, developers saw opportunity, snapping up property on the west bank of the river for home sites. Thus was born Bridge City, an unincorporated Jefferson Parish municipality with about 8,000 residents today and which is home to the annual Gumbo Festival.
- The bridge was deliberately overbuilt to account for the region’s “gumbo” soil and strong river currents. The caution paid off. Seventy-seven years after it was completed, the bridge in 2012 was named a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers, joining such other structures as the Eiffel Tower, the Hoover Dam, the Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.
- The bridge was designed by the pre-eminent Chicago engineering firm of Modjeski, Masters and Chase. Its founder, Ralph Modjeski, is considered one of America’s greatest bridge-builders.
- The Huey P. took three years and cost $13 million to build. That’s more than $224 million in today’s currency. Originally, the plan was to charge tolls to cross it, but Long insisted it be toll-free.
- The Huey P. isn’t the only Mississippi River bridge named after Long. In 1940, the Huey P. Long-O.K. Allen Bridge was dedicated in Baton Rouge, although locals know it simply as “the old Mississippi River bridge.”
Many New Orleanians today take the Huey P. for granted, but — in addition to being an engineering achievement — its completion marked a watershed moment economically. With bridges already spanning the river in 29 other places upstream, it opened the region to transcontinental rail traffic and thus maintained New Orleans’ status as an economic player. “People have not been very ready to come into Louisiana, but this bridge should have much to do with helping to bring about a great change in this development of the country,” said A.D. McDonald, president of the Southern Pacific rail line, at the bridge’s dedication.