PORT ARTHUR — September 8th, 1938 Rainbow Bridge was dedicated with a ribbon-cutting followed by a daring dive backwards 177 feet into the Neches river. The bridge became the link between State Highway 87 and State Highway 73.
The Bridge cost around $3 million to build, and took about three years. Construction started in early 1936.
The Museum of the Gulf Coast curator Sarah Bellian said it's hard to imagine what people were dealing with at that time.
"I mean all kinds of things had to cross the river and the ferry crossing was the only way of doing it, which is why prior to the construction of the bridge sometimes people would take hours to take the ferry," said Bellian.
She said the need for the bridge came about because for well over 100 years ferry boats were the main source of transportation across waterways. As the 1930s came around, Bellian said they became a bygone relic from the 1830s, and were insufficient to handle traffic moving east and west.
Bellian went on to explain that at the time, there was an ongoing debate on whether the bridge would pose a problem with navigation. Some, specifically those in Beaumont, were worried the bridge may block the waterway with the supports or a low bridge height, making it impossible for ships to get into Beaumont.
That's why they built the bridge to be 177 feet high. Bellian said at that height,even the tallest ship in the U.S. Navy at that time could have passed through. However, a ship of that size never did come to Beaumont.
At the time, the bridge was very challenging to build. Bellian said a bridge of the same scale would run anywhere from 200-300 million dollars.
At 2.75 million dollars in the 1938, people had a major issue with spending that much on a possibly unnecessary bridge. The sum may not seem like a large amount today, but Bellian said they were just coming out of the great depression.
However, Bellian said by the time they were finished building the bridge, they really needed it. The bridge served as a connection to Orange and Port Arthur. During World War II, the ship building industry was huge in Orange. Bellian said the bridge allowed for busses to travel back and forth, which was essential to keeping wartime industries flowing.
The bridge stood as the tallest bridge in the south for 6 years until the Pecos River Bridge was built. When it was first built, it carried two-way traffic. Bellian said as traffic got heavier, the need for another bridge arose. That's how Veterans Memorial Bridge came to be.
Bellian said the bridge was originally called Port Arthur Orange Bridge. A 6 year-old child named the bridge Rainbow Bridge after winning a contest sponsored by the Lions Club. She was awarded a $50 dollar savings bond.
Bellian said the bridge brought together Jefferson and Orange Counties.
"Bridges in general and infrastructure projects are all about linking communities and this bridge became very quickly kind of an iconic symbol of the area," said Bellian.
Normal Elkins of Groves said she uses the bridge just about every day. She says the bridge remains a crucial link between communities.
"It's very important to our area, very important for workers and stuff like that, we need lots of good bridges and Rainbow Bridge is one of them," said Bellian.