The Bridges of Mobile County

Mobile is a watery place. Besides Mobile Bay and the Mobile River Delta, which constitute the county’s eastern border, and the Mississippi Sound, its southern, various rivers, bayous, creeks and streams cut their relentless paths through our sandy loam, constantly seeking the sea. From ancient times these waterways have served as de facto highways, allowing access to areas that would take much longer or be impossible to reach by land. In fact, the very name “Mobile” is believed to have come from an Indian word meaning “to paddle.”

The Bay area’s destiny has always been linked to the water and trade, and from colonial times, ships and boats of every description have beat their way into our Bay to the city itself and up and down the many waterways. But with the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century, bridges that could accommodate maritime traffic as well as provide for vehicular crossing became necessary, lest the waterways become frustrating impediments to urban growth.

Engineers had ready solutions, and Mobile County waterways can boast numerous examples of interesting and clever bridge designs that have kept shipping, plus cars, trucks, RVs, and anything else with wheels and an internal combustion engine, moving efficiently.

The old Dog River drawbridge, ca. 1980. This double leaf bascule bridge served both maritime and land-bound traffic for more than 60 years. Here, the spans drop back into place after a boat’s passage. photo courtesy The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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The Drawing Board

Drawbridges have been around since at least medieval times. The simplest of these designs is referred to as a bascule (from the French for “seesaw” or “rocker”). A bascule bridge can be single or double leaf — in other words, opening from one end or in halves at the middle — and operates by a counterweight system underneath the deck. The old Dog River Bridge (1930) was a double leaf bascule bridge and had the advantage of relatively quick opening and closing. Nonetheless, the bridge aged out and was replaced by a much less interesting, modern, fixed span in the late 1990s.

The big counterweights on the Cochrane Bridge, ca. 1930, can clearly be seen in the towers, as can the flywheels on top. The span is at about the halfway mark here, while traffic idles at either end. photo courtesy The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Vertical Limits

Vertical lift bridges are another straightforward and simple design solution, and there have been (and are) several in the Mobile region. These types of overpasses also operate by counterweights, but in their case the weights are housed in towers, and a section of the deck lifts up parallel with the road to the required height. Their advantage is that the counterweights only have to equal the weight of the deck, unlike the counterweights for bascule bridges, which have to be several times heavier than the deck. This allows vertical lift bridges to be sturdier, an especial advantage if the span is to be used by trains.

Mobilians got their first taste of this type of design with the old Cochrane Bridge over the Mobile River. Part of a complex, multimillion-dollar pro-ject that crossed the head of Mobile Bay with five bridges and a Causeway, this span officially opened on June 14, 1927, effectively eliminating the old wooden bay boats that previously had ferried passengers and cargo. Named for John T. Cochrane Sr., president of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce and a dedicated advocate of the project, the new bridge initially required a modest toll. Rates were $1 each for cars, $2 for large trucks, and $0.10 for pedestrians. By 1940, more than a million vehicles a year were using the bridge, but it, too, aged out, and in 1991 was replaced by the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, a spectacular soaring cable stayed bridge.

top to bottom More than 15, 000 vehicles traverse J. A. Wintzell Memorial Bridge span every day in Bayou La Batre, with considerably fewer boats passing beneath it. But both modes of traffic are crucial to the area’s economy. Though few Alabamians will ever see this remote new CSX railroad lift bridge on the Mobile River, its presence should improve the economic prospects of all of south Alabama. photos by Dennis Holt 

Making Connections

In 1955,   a 3-mile bridge with a lift section over the Intracoastal Waterway linked Dauphin Island, off the county’s southern end, to the mainland. Officially named the Gordon Persons Bridge for a former Alabama governor, it  had little platforms along its length, making it a popular fishing spot with the public and the bridge tender, who regularly snagged catfish and drum from on high. The Gordon Persons was completely destroyed by Hurricane Frederic and replaced with a fixed span in 1982.

There are two existing lift spans in Mobile County — the J. A. Wintzell Memorial Bridge in Bayou La Batre and the new CSX railroad bridge on the Mobile River.  The Bayou La Batre bridge dates from 1984. Its 104-foot center section rises to 75 feet, easily allowing passage of the shrimp boats, with their tall masts and rigging, as they navigate the bayou.

The revamped CSX lift bridge, located about 14 miles north of downtown Mobile, replaces an older swing bridge constructed in 1927. A swing-style overpass utilizes a central piling that acts as a pivot for the movable section. While the old CSX bridge still worked fine, it only had 135 feet of clear passage on either side when fully open. This required big barge tows to halt and break down into smaller units, costing precious time and money.

Because more than 10, 000 barges use this route every year, a better bridge was vital. The new $72 million lift span eliminates the central pivot section and provides 60 feet of vertical clearance when fully lifted, with the entire width of the river unencumbered below. Congressman Jo Bonner told the Press-Register that this improvement would significantly help Alabama’s rural counties — far from modern interstate highways — as their link to “industrial expansion.”

Just over a decade into the new millennium, Mobile’s waterways and highways continue to work seamlessly together, thanks to these beautifully designed and functioning bridges. 

John S. Sledge is working on a history of the Mobile River to be published in 2014 by the University of South Carolina Press.

John S. Sledge

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