by Jeffrey Chitek
As you cruise southbound into New Orleans on 55, something happens…The rolling hills of Mississippi taper of into the flat plains of the primeval Silurian seabed and then.. seemingly no land at all. Towering Cypress and tangled sawgrass give the facade of solid ground but when you cross that delta line, land becomes a serious commodity.
Developing as a port town along the great Mississippi River, New Orleans up until the turn of the 19th century was almost completely boat access only. As more people settled around this booming metropolis, new approaches and transportation routes (ie roads and trains) needed to be established. Trains made a late arrival by national standards in the 1870’s, having major difficulties laying solid track lines in the soft subsiding soils of the surrounding swamps and marshes. The work paid of and set the groundwork for Louisiana’s lumbering boom in the late 1880’s. Bald Cypress is a rot and water resistant wood in abundance in Southeastern Louisiana and became the catalyst cash crop for the short lived but lucrative Louisiana lumber exporting empire. By 1935, the depression forced most of these sawmills to close, leaving a chunk of deforested land the size of New Jersey with little to show for it in sustained revenue.
Another infrastructural boom came during the cold war. Long stretches of elevated roadways and bridges began popping up along the swampy landscape, connecting the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding estuaries. These massive projects were deemed necessary by the federal government to serve as evacuation and military mobilization routes in case of invasion or hurricanes.
I am still in awe as I travel across these nature-defying architectural and engineering undertakings. Some of these bridges have trusses and legs reaching up to 50 feet under the topsoil to mount the heavy structure onto solid ground. These bridges were advertised as costing “a million dollars a mile” and are some of the understated construction projects of the last 80 years.
Below is an article on more bridge history in New Orleans.