While I may be never quite lost, sometimes I find myself in places where I possibly shouldn’t be. But rarely in plain sight in the middle of a city.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, was built on oil, but it was also the hometown of Cyrus Avery, ‘the Father of Route 66’, and he would probably never have been welcomed home again if he hadn’t ensured that new highway ran through Tulsa. However, there are a couple of equally likely and valid reasons; Tulsa had a bridge.
Moreover, it was the first purpose-built automobile bridge to span the 1450 miles of the Arkansas River which runs through the city. Built in 1916, it was something of a wonder for the flatlands. One of the longest concrete structures in the Midwest, it was also the first major multi-span (eighteen of them) concrete bridge in Oklahoma. By providing an easy crossing of the Arkansas, it allowed the oil industry in Tulsa to flourish.
And the second reason? Remember that Cyrus Avery came from Tulsa; serving as Oklahoma County Commissioner from 1913 to 1916, he was involved with the construction of the bridge and it must have had a place in his heart. Even today, it’s still a structure of which to be proud.
It was built by the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company for $180,000, and, at 1470 feet long and 34 feet wide, supported a railroad track in the middle and a single lane of vehicular traffic either side, flanked by pavements. In 1934, it was widened to 52 feet and 8 inches and could accommodate four lanes of traffic. Careful traffic, that is. 52 feet is not all that wide…
And, for the next 63 years, the 11th Street Bridge served Tulsa well, bringing prosperity into the city, and allowing travellers to make their way across Oklahoma to the promised lands via Route 66. But it started to show its age. Lanes were closed, load limits implemented and then, in 1975, the City had to pay compensation to a woman who fell through a hole in one of the walkways. It was only $1100, but it was a wake-up call that the bridge was in trouble. A new crossing was commissioned and, in 1980, the 11th Street Bridge was closed to traffic. There was talk of tearing it down, but, luckily, the money to demolish it never seemed to quite transpire.
In 2004, the bridge was renamed the Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge, but a new fancy name didn’t make it any more structurally sound. Then, in 2008, it was closed to even pedestrians, a plan to make it safe enough to reopen to walking traffic having been costed at $15 million. Rather than spend that sort of money, the city gave the bridge a bit of a spruce up and then gated it off. This was after surveyors decided that the bridge was too unsafe to even walk on. I suspect they probably don’t even want you to look at it that hard. The blacktop on the bridge is actually just a waterproof coating and the bridge is too weak to hold up another layer of asphalt. The city sprays the weeds occasionally, but even that is considered risky.
Now, I have to say I didn’t know all this when I found myself at the 11th Street Bridge one grey October morning. I don’t know why a side gate was open, but even if I had realised that there was a distinct possibility a hole might open up underneath me and plunge me into the muddy waters of the Arkansas River, then I would probably still have walked its length. Only afterwards did I realise how lucky I was to have had that chance.