A major logistics catastrophe avoided. We’ll talk about the railroad worker strike that wasn’t. Railroad worker unions were prepared to go on strike without a contract that had better protections for sick time. We’ll have the latest on the deal that’s kept the trains on the tracks. Plus you’ve heard of blue books, the green book, but what about the beige book? It’s choc full of the economy’s secrets, and our own Sean Saldana’s been looking through a copy. And a major bridge project in Corpus Christi has produced major headaches. We’ll tell you why. That and the biggest headlines of the day, today on the Texas Standard:
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.”
Federal law enforcement created a new term that’s stirring up controversy: “Black Identity Extremists”. We’ll explore what’s really behind the FBI’s latest report. Plus, one crop in the Texas hit hard by rain: pumpkins. Some patches lost up to half the harvest, but this farmer still hopes you get your pick. And south of the panhandle pumpkin patch, lithium ion batteries in Lubbock. Elon Musk says he can rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid using a technique tested in Texas. We’ll find out how. And, could tech speed up the commute across the South Texas border? Those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:
When you’re driving down Lamar Boulevard between Lady Bird Lake and Fifth Street, do you ever look at the walls of the underpass beneath the train bridge? Do you look at those blank blue signs on the walls of the underpass and wonder: What the heck are those things?
There’s more than one Texas bridge that can be especially troubling for those with gephyrophobia – fear of bridges.
The Pecos railroad bridge can certainly give you the willies from the right perspective. The Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge can give you pause if you’re hit with the outer bands of a tropical storm when you’re up on top. Some of those five-stack interchanges in Dallas and Houston can cause a palpitation or two. But in my opinion, the scariest bridge in Texas is the Rainbow Bridge between Port Arthur and Orange, on Texas Highway 73.
The bridge offers the triple threat. You can see it coming from a long way off. It has a steep ascent and descent. And it rises frighteningly high over the water. Those are the things gephyrophobics most dread.
The Rainbow Bridge is scary enough today, with two lanes for one-way traffic, but it used to be much worse. When it was completed in 1938, it was the second-tallest bridge in America, second only to the Golden Gate. It was essentially 20 stories tall. For many decades, drivers had to put up with two thin lanes carrying cars and 18-wheelers in both directions.
As you arrived near the top of the bridge, all you could see was sky in the daytime and the stars at night. You just had to have faith that the pavement would be there waiting for you when you passed over the hump. It was enough to make some folks take a 30-mile detour to avoid the stress. Seems odd that a bridge with such a nice name could cause such fear.
Local driver’s education teachers often made students drive over that bridge on their first day of class. They believed that the best way to conquer a fear was to face it – head on – right away.
Originally, it was called the Port Arthur-Orange Bridge. I personally believed that the Rainbow Bridge name came from Norse mythology wherein the Rainbow Bridge connects heaven and earth. But no. In 1957 the North Port Arthur Lion’s Club had a naming contest and 6-year-old Christy McClintock submitted the winning entry – Rainbow Bridge.
She said it looked like a mechanical rainbow. And it does indeed. If you are ever there towards sunset and see it illuminated in those pink hues of the evening, it does look like a steel rainbow. Christy got a $50 savings bond as her prize. Doesn’t sound like much today, but in 1957, you could have bought 200 Whataburgers with it.
Why was the bridge built so tall, 177 feet of vertical clearance, in that delta region? There was an important ship channel there and they wanted the tallest ship in the navy at the time, the USS Patoka, the be able to pass easily beneath it.
The Rainbow Bridge was more than an engineering marvel. It was also a magnet for teenagers in the night. The high school kids in the area used to climb up into the catwalks. One of those students was destined for worldwide fame. It is said that she used to sit up there high above the moonlit waters of the Neches River and sing in her passionately raw style. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. Janis Joplin? Her biographer, Myra Friedman, said that she would sing up there under the great Texas sky and “scorch the stars.” But that’s a whole ‘nother story. I’m just giving you the abridged version. The pun is free.
The tallest ship in the Navy never did cruise beneath the Rainbow Bridge. Seems a shame – somewhat like a bride having planned a perfect wedding, and the groom never showed.
Has the freedom caucus outlived its usefulness? Congressman Ted Poe on why he walked away and what that means for conservatives in Texas. Also, out of control: after hundreds of arrests and even deaths during spring break, South Padre demand a shift in the island’s image as the teenage party capitol. And from ranchers to rock stars, how the resurgence of chain stitched western wear could be a Texas sized boon for business. Also a warning to gephyrophobes about the scariest bridge in all of you know where. All that and more today on the Texas Standard:
You’ve probably seen this memorial if you’ve ever driven on Lamar Blvd in Austin. It’s right there, on the pillar holding up the train bridge where Third Street crosses Lamar. It says: “Fair Sailing Tall Boy. Ivan Garth Johnson. Not forgotten. 1971 – 1989. Don’t Drink and Drive, You Might Kill Someone’s Kid.”