Living

A 21st century Coast tale of a WWI memorial

The back of this postcard of the original War Memorial Bridge, which opened in 1930 across Biloxi Bay, declares the bridge to be ‘one of the finest highway concrete structures in the South.’
The back of this postcard of the original War Memorial Bridge, which opened in 1930 across Biloxi Bay, declares the bridge to be ‘one of the finest highway concrete structures in the South.’ The Paul Jermyn Collection

Ten years after World War I, the Mississippi Coast began construction on what it boasted to be the longest memorial to the men and women who died or fought in the Great War.

The 1914 to 1918 conflict killed 18 million and wounded another 23 million, including 350,000 American casualties.

The Coast “memorial” was actually a much-needed automobile bridge that connected Jackson and Harrison counties where Biloxi Bay spills into the Mississippi Sound. Ferries had transported commerce and people across waterways before this 20th Century bridging era improved local travel.

War Memorial Bridge

The War Memorial Bridge, as it was first called, opened with much fanfare in 1930. Navy and Army airplanes flew overhead and the U.S. Marine Corps band belted out patriotic tunes. A 2-mile long parade of automobiles and walkers crossed the newly opened two-lane bridge, and in the water below a similar parade of pleasure and fishing boats joined them.

“Wreaths tossed from the planes fell about the mile-and-a-half bridge as ceremonies marked the opening of the latest link in 32 miles of bridges on the Old Spanish Trail, spanning the bay-spiked coast between Mobile and New Orleans,” reported The Daily Herald.

This last bridge to link the 150 miles between the two major cities was the largest of them all.

Old Spanish Trail

Despite its name, the Old Spanish Trail was a marketing invention for the new age of automobiles. Promoters knew that connected, paved roads lured more tourist and commerce dollars.

War Memorial Bridge price tag was about $900,000, or $13.1 million in today’s dollars. It took 18 months to build, with the first pile driven Aug. 12, 1928, followed June 3, 1930, with the dedication.

The bridge, as old postcards show, was concrete. News stories claimed that more than 22,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel and four million pounds of steel created the 7,768-foot long, 24-foot wide bridge. The vehicle roadway was 20 feet wide, with the other 4 feet used for a walkway and for fishing.

Accolades

An American Guide Series on the Coast crowed about the bridge:

“Bridge fishing good for sheepshead, speckled trout and redfish. From the bridge Deer Island is visible a mile or so offshore. To the right curves the tree-lined shore of the bay.

“The low, graceful concrete bridge is brilliantly lighted. A centerpoint swing span, opening for the passing of the Back Bay shrimp and oyster fleet, provides two 120-foot clearances between fenders.”

Draw span

The 283-foot, motorized, swinging draw span was of structural steel supported by concrete piers. The bridge’s steel was barged in from Pittsburgh Pa., and 160,000 bags of cement were barged in from New Orleans. About 250 men were paid to construct the bridge.

Those old enough to remember War Memorial Bridge may not recognize the name. Soon, other U.S. communities opened war memorial bridges, including Washington, D.C.

Time goes by

As time passed, Coast folks variously called their bridge the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge and Ocean Springs-Biloxi Bridge, depending often tongue-in-cheek on which side of the bridge they lived.

This span was vital to locals, tourists and businesses. Its usefulness belied the size of the two endpoint towns at its opening. Biloxi’s population was 14,850 and Ocean Springs was 1,670.

Progress and a hurricane erased the War Memorial Bridge. In 1962 the two-laner was replaced with a higher four-lane span, and the old memorial bridge was transformed into two fishing piers accessible from both Biloxi and Ocean Springs. The swinging draw was removed for boat traffic.

The two halves of the old bridge became a popular fishing destination for four decades until Hurricane Katrina destroyed the changling piers as well the 1962 traffic bridge so vital to coastline travel.

New bridge

Amazingly, an aesthetically pleasing, six-lane span, officially named the Biloxi Bay Bridge, opened in 2007 to the tune of $338 million.

About five years later new fishing piers replaced the original sections, with an inflation-adjusted price tag about the same as the original 1930 bridge cost. But that’s not the end of the World War I memorial story. Riprap from the old bridge is now part of the popular underwater Katrina Reef near Deer Island.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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