San Jacinto Bridge

According to the signs, the I-10 bridge over the San Jacinto River is slated to open on Friday, ahead of schedule. The closing of the bridge last September got me to thinking about what a bottleneck this crossing has been ever since the days of the Republic. My wife suggested that I look into it and it’s way more interesting than I realized.

Before a bridge existed, the crossing was made on ferries. After the fall of the Alamo, Santa Anna started marching his troops this direction. All the settlers in his path began a panicked rush toward the Louisiana border, but 5,000 people had to cross Lynch’s ferry creating the first traffic backup here. After the defeat of the Mexican army at San Jacinto these same people used the same ferry to return to their homes. There was also only one boat, so if developed leaks, as unpainted wood boats always did, it would be taken out of service to repair, and if you needed to cross, you had the option of going all the way to Crosby or just waiting until it was fixed. 

In 1911 the county built a new ferry with a gasoline engine. The problem with gasoline engines and transmissions is that they break, especially back then. They were taken out of service for annual repairs, or unscheduled engine replacements but there was just that one ferry, so you had the option of going all the way to Crosby or just waiting until it was fixed. It also sank occasionally which added to the delays, and drownings caused by cars and wagons falling off were not unheard of. 

It was a big deal when Market Street opened with a new bridge over the river in 1928. People were travelling in tall cotton until June of 1929 when a flood washed away the approached to the bridge. Then you had the option of going all the way to Crosby or taking the Lynchburg ferry south down Battleground Road. Luckily, the Zavalla Ferry was still running so you could still get to the west side of Market Street. Gaps in the road were finally completed in May, 1931 and the bridge reopened in August. The approaches to this bridge used creosote timbers for structure and we almost lost it in May, 1932 when the Pelly Fire department put out a grass fire which had it reached the bridge would have burned it to the waterline.

After being in service for only eight years the bridge was closed for rebuilding in February 1936. The work on the bridge had been delayed for several months because flooding of the San Jacinto had washed away some of the new road bed and it was necessary to wait for it to settle before paving repairs could be made.  The bridge reopened for traffic in July, a month ahead of schedule and people who had been going all the way to Crosby could now take the straight shot to Houston.

At least they could until April 1946 when the bridge was closed for a few weeks between 7AM and 7PM to widen the approaches. They didn’t have construction lighting like we do today; the road crews had to work during the day. They did let busses and mail cars through though. About this time the Corps of Engineers started planning to build a dam on the river for flood control.

In July 1951, engineers discovered that pilings had shifted so the bridge had to be closed once again for repairs. They had to knock holes in the bridge to install the new pilings and then the holes had to be repaired. And for three weeks 10,000 cars a day had to either go all the way to Crosby or take ferries to get to Houston. But it didn’t take long for problems to crop up again. The following January they had to shut the bridge down for more piling replacements. It reopened 10 days later with limited loads. They were getting really good at making repairs. They were good at painting too because in March 1953, they closed it for a month during daylight hours to paint it.

In 1955 the old trestle bridge was replaced with a concrete bridge connecting the two sides of the new Hwy 73 which ran from Beaumont to Houston. By now Lake Houston dam had been built which was designed to control flooding along the river. 

And it did until October 1994 when flooding caused pipeline ruptures, setting the river on fire and completely closing the bridge for a week. The damage from the fire forced closure of the eastbound lanes for months. 2008 brought some amount of protection when the dolphins were put in on the upstream side of the bridge to protect the pillars. Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 didn’t damage the bridge, but made Interstate 10 impassible for a week, and this time even going through Crosby wasn’t an option.

Then in February 2019 a barge strayed from the channel and struck a pillar on westbound span, closing the bridge. It reopened a week later with two westbound lanes. It completely opened a few months later, but no sooner than it did, flooding from Tropical Storm Imelda broke loose nine barges from the parking lot upstream of the bridge. They were on their way to the Gulf of Mexico when they got outside of the channel (and the dolphins designed to protect the bridge) and destroyed pillars on the north span. Traffic was rerouted to the south span with two lanes open each direction and that’s where we are now. Everybody, including the folks in Crosby will be glad for the bridge to reopen.

Things are looking up. The bridge is scheduled for replacement. The last date I heard was 2043.

 

Baytown resident Chuck Chandler is retired from the Exxon Refinery and serves as Vice President of Baytown Historical Preservation Association. Contact him at chuck.chandler@baytownhistory.org

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