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Old Vicksburg Bridge (Vicksburg, MS)

 

The early decades of the 20th Century were a transformational period in the history of transportation in the American Deep South region. In the years immediately after World War I, the United States Bureau of Public Roads (the predecessor agency to today’s Federal Highway Administration, or “FHWA”) began issuing federal funding toward the improvement of road networks across the country, particularly across the southern U.S. One project that became among the most successful in the region was the improvement and modernization of the Dixie Overland Highway, established in 1914 by the Automobile Club of Savannah and improved drastically due to federal intervention in the 1920s. The highway was advertised as the country’s shortest coast-to-coast automobile thoroughfare open year-round. As part of the national numbering of the U.S. Highway system that took place in 1927 under the guidance of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), this corridor became the new US Highway 80, which originally stretched from San Diego, CA to Savannah, GA by way of Vicksburg, MS. At the same time, railroad infrastructure in the region was being expanded and modernized and the need for a new railroad crossing of the Mississippi River south of Memphis had become apparent and its construction a priority project. Where the demands of these two modes of travel intersected was here in the project to construct the first bridge on the lower Mississippi River downriver from Memphis.


The original logo for the Dixie Overland Highway, as it appeared in 1918 about ten years prior to its signage as US Highway 80

Constructed by the Vicksburg Bridge & Terminal Company and opened in 1930, the original Mississippi River bridge at Vicksburg was among the largest steel cantilever truss bridges in the world when it entered service and remains one of the largest such bridges in the United States today. The bridge’s overall length is nearly two miles, enabling the road & railbeds to span the entire floodplain and levee system on the Louisiana side of the river. Its longest span is 825 ft and its roadway sits about 120 ft above mean river level. While far from the only bridge on the river built to share space for both road and rail traffic, its design is unique in that both modes of transport – the single-track railroad (owned today by the Kansas City Southern) and the narrow 18 ft roadway – pass through the steel superstructure side-by-side. In most other of these cases on the lower Mississippi, the roadways are cantilevered outside the main superstructure while the railroad tracks pass through it, creating a substandard operation and a somewhat clumsy visual. The Vicksburg Bridge is therefore the lone bridge on the lower Mississippi River that succeeds in handling multiple modes of heavy transport while also giving off the appearance of a graceful, streamlined structure.


This view of the two monstrous steel bridges on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg is available to visitors to the Mississippi Welcome Center located off of Exit 1A on Interstate 20. The Old Vicksburg Bridge is to the right, while the "new" Vicksburg Bridge is to the left.

The bridge proved to be a huge success and the momentum from its construction led to the planning of other road & railroad bridges on the lower Mississippi further downriver in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez in the following decade. The high roadway traffic demands of the postwar years forced planners to consider making improvements to the Vicksburg crossing. The narrow roadway consisted of two lanes that were about 9 ft wide apiece, which made the crossing hazardous for vehicles of all sizes, particularly heavier and wider trucks that would oftentimes have trouble passing one another due to the narrow confines. These planning efforts culminated in the construction of a new exclusively highway-only bridge immediately downriver in the early 1970s. Despite the opening of the new bridge in 1973, the old bridge continued to remain open to local traffic for another 25 years until it finally closed in 1998. At that time, the US 80 designation, which had applied to the old bridge from its inception, was relocated onto the new bridge and the former US 80 alignment that currently dead-ends in the village of Delta is now signed as LA Highway 3218. Today, the roadway is used by railroad-affiliated maintenance vehicles, but does not permit public access. Occasional discussions have taken place over the last 25 years regarding the restoration of the roadway to permanent pedestrian/bicycle access, however these efforts have not led to any significant breakthroughs as of March 2024.

At the top of the Louisiana tower of the main superstructure stands a large American flag. The origins of the flag are not clear, but it first appeared at the top of the bridge around 1994 and has remained a fixture on the structure ever since. It is a bit ironic that this location is the site of such a high-profile, patriotic display. The city of Vicksburg featured prominently during the Civil War as a critical Confederate stronghold and the Union Army tried for nearly two years to take the city by force in order to gain total control of the lower Mississippi River. (The nearby Vicksburg National Military Park is a worthwhile visit for folks interested in learning more about the abundant Civil War-related history in this corner of the country.) This objective was finally achieved on July 4, 1863 with the city’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces, marking a significant inflection point in the conflict. The city would openly refuse to celebrate the Fourth of July in the decades that followed and they did not mark the occasion again until World War II.


Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces captured the city of Vicksburg in July 1863 at the height of the Civil War. His battlefield successes led to him being appointed as Lieutenant General and Supreme Commander of all Union Armies the following year.

The following pictures from my visits to the Old Vicksburg Bridge in February 2023 showcase various ground-level views of the bridge and its surroundings on the Mississippi River taken from multiple locations on the Mississippi side of the river. The aforementioned Mississippi Welcome Center and its adjacent areas are a great place to view this bridge. There is another fantastic viewing point a short distance north at the parking lots for the Ameristar Casino & Hotel on the Mississippi Riverfront. Click on each photo to see a larger version.



The following pictures from my visits to the Old Vicksburg Bridge in February 2023 were taken across from the Mississippi Welcome Center and showcase the old approach road and former toll booth location on the Mississippi side of the river. Click on each photo to see a larger version.



The following pictures from my visits to the Old Vicksburg Bridge in February 2023 were taken on the Louisiana side of the bridge and showcase the old approach road and former US Highway 80 alignment near the village of Delta, LA. Click on each photo to see a larger version.


The following aerial photos from my February 2023 visits to the Old Vicksburg Bridge showcase various views of the bridge and its surroundings along the Mississippi River. Take note of the nearby presence of the "New" Vicksburg Bridge in these photos as well. Click on each photo to see a larger version.



The Old Vicksburg Bridge was featured in the "Bridges of the Lower Mississippi River" webinar on the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel, beginning at the 1:03:36 mark:


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