Bridges are measured in three ways, for those who like to keep world records and such: longest, tallest and highest. In Texas, the Fred Hartman Bridge is both the longest bridge at 2.6 miles, and the tallest, at 440 feet. But it is not the highest. That honor goes to the aptly named Pecos High Bridge, which is an astounding 322 feet above the Pecos River – a football field straight up.
The highest bridge in America, in case you’re wondering, is the Royal Gorge Bridge, which comes in just shy of 1000 feet. It’s in Colorado, and would be in Texas today had we kept our original northern lands. Nonetheless, without Texas, it might not exist at all, as you will see in the history I’m fixin’ to tell you about.
The Royal Gorge Bridge was the dream of Lon P. Piper of San Antonio. They say he stood on the edge of the Gorge in 1928 and imagined laying a bridge across it, a suspension bridge. He had already built a bridge across the Rio Grande into Mexico.
This Royal Gorge Bridge would be different though. It would be a bridge to nowhere, one that would exist purely to give tourists the kind of heart-stopping views they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. He knew it would be a challenge, but he was certain it could be done. Within two years he made his dream come true. It cost him $350,000, or $5 million in today’s dollars. But when it was finished, he owned the highest bridge in the world – and it would remain so for 72 years.
Lon was quite the entrepreneur in those times. He also developed the Richland Springs Treasure Cave in San Saba as a Carlsbad Caverns-like tourist attraction in the 1920s and ’30s. He was also an early investor in a new concept of motor hotels – or “motels.”
Lon hired bridge engineer George Cole of Houston to design the Royal Gorge Bridge and to serve as the general contractor. With 70 men they completed the project in six months without a fatality or any serious injuries. As I learned about the bridge’s history, I couldn’t help but notice its national character. It was a bridge built by Texans, in Colorado, that spanned the Arkansas River, using Oregon timber for the deck. That’s some interstate diversity in one bridge. Mr. Cole went on to design and build the narrow-gauge railroad that would take brave riders to the bottom of the gorge at a 45-degree angle. Now there are gondolas far above the gorge for those who want to go higher still, and zip lines for those who can’t get enough tachycardia in their lives.
In 1947, Lon sold the bridge to another Texan, Clint Murchison, Sr. Murchison bought it sight unseen, as an investment, and strangely never traveled there to walk across his magnificent possession. He never stood at the precipice of the gorge to admire the highest bridge in the world that he just happened to own. Makes me think of Fitzgerald who said, “The rich are different from you and me.” No, Muchison just set up the Royal Gorge Bridge Company and based it in Dallas to manage the Colorado property from there. When he died the bridge was passed on to his sons, Clint Murchison, Jr. (you remember him – he founded and owned the Dallas Cowboys for 25 years), and his brother John. When John Murchison died his wife Lucille inherited the bridge and they say, “she just loved it;” she traveled up there to see it several times a year.
For the past 20 years the Royal Gorge Bridge’s general manager of operations has been Mike Bandera, a Texan who got his start in the amusement park business at Six Flags Over Texas where he worked for 16 years.
Today, the Royal Gorge Bridge, after nearly 100 years, has Colorado ownership. Lucille passed it on to her grandchildren, and they sold it a few years ago to Canyon City.
So I’d like to say this to Colorado, about the world-class bridge we envisioned, financed, built and managed for you all these years: “You’re welcome.”