Tunnel Vision

Because it is submerged, the Bankhead Tunnel may not seem like a massive structure. But the tunnel, with  its $4 million price tag, was definitely Mobile’s largest and most expensive federal project  during the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration hired thousands to build the 3, 389-foot-long structure, which sits deep enough for seagoing vessels with 40-foot drafts to easily pass over as they enter and exit the Mobile River.

Longtime Mobile resident and famed artist Roderick D. MacKenzie created a series of oil pastels that chronicled the tunnel’s construction progress from 1938 until his death in early 1941, the same year the Bankhead opened. (It was, at that time, a toll tunnel.) Primarily housed at the Mobile Municipal Archives, the series imparts a striking impression of the size and scope of the three-year project. MacKenzie captured various stages of the development, movement, and submerging of the seven steel and concrete tubes that form the tunnel’s elongated body.

In the image above, ADDSCO workers use the company’s riverside dry dock to launch one of the tubes to its watery destination. In classic MacKenzie style, the work has a soft, velvety feel that contrasts against the industrial quality of the construction materials.

Despite MacKenzie’s fame and the Bankhead Tunnel’s significance, the artist died nearly penniless. Most of his works were auctioned off to settle his estate. The Bankhead series was no exception. Six of the major works and a handful of smaller pieces are housed at Mobile Municipal Archives. Some in the series, however, have been donated to various local institutions, while others remain in private collections.

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Mobile Municipal Archives • 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F. 457 Church St. 208-7740.

Jacob Laurence

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