Rainbow Bridge

By: Mildred S. Wright

Type: General Entry

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: August 21, 2015

The bridge over the Neches River connecting Port Arthur and Orange County was dedicated on September 8, 1938, as the Port Arthur-Orange Bridge and replaced the Dryden Ferry as a part of the "Hug-the-Coast Highway" on State Highway 87. As a result of a contest in 1957 it became known as the "Rainbow Bridge." Ferry service had proved unreliable, and on November 30, 1934, after a seven-year campaign, Governor Miriam A. Ferguson signed the bill permitting Jefferson County to participate in the cost of the structure. The bridge was financed by the county, state, and federal governments under the Public Works Administration at a cost of $2,750,000. Before the bridge was built a dispute over it arose between Port Arthur and Beaumont. From the point of view from Beaumont, which had its dock upstream, the proposed bridge would be a menace to navigation, would be little used, and would cost the county too much money. Beaumont citizens argued that a ferry or a drawbridge would suffice. Port Arthur citizens argued that the bridge would allow motor traffic to operate uninhibited at all times. The two factions sent delegations to Austin to argue their respective cases before the State Highway Commission, but they finally reached an agreement by October 1934. Beaumont representatives offered to end the controversy if the Port Arthur faction would approve a vertical clearance of 185 feet for the bridge. The matter ended with a compromise of 176 feet. The bridge was built with a vertical clearance of 176+ feet, a main span of 680 feet between main piers, and 600 feet between fenders. The clearance was to allow the tallest ship afloat at the time (the Navy dirigible tender USS Patoka) to pass. This made the bridge the most elevated highway bridge over tidal waters in the world and the largest bridge built by the Texas Highway Department. The cantilever bridge was designed to withstand the force of a 130-mile hurricane wind and a wind pressure of seventy-five pounds per square foot. A special driving rig was designed. The eight pairs of reinforced concrete piers were to extend from ninety-five feet to 102 feet below the surface of the water and rise eleven feet to twenty feet above. The sixty-eight smaller piers were to be supported to an average depth of seventy-five feet. The total length of the bridge and approaches would be 7,752 feet. The roadway was to be 25 feet wide between railings and 22 feet wide between curbs, providing an eighteen-inch walkway. The incline of the bridge was to be 5 percent, a rise vertically five feet for each 100 feet of climb. The project plans revealed there are 1,428 feet of cantilever spans, 1,200 feet of continuous truss spans, 2,560 feet of deck truss spans, 1,802 feet of deck girder spans, and 762 feet of concrete girder spans. Construction began in May 1936 and was completed in September 1938. In 1988 construction began on a new multilane bridge, the Veterans' Memorial Bridge, which ran parallel to the old Rainbow Bridge. It was completed in 1991. In 1993 the Rainbow Bridge began renovations to bring the roadway to federal standards; in 1995 construction was still underway. The rehabilitated Rainbow Bridge was to provide two lanes for southbound traffic. Northbound traffic was to use the Veterans' Memorial Bridge, dedicated on September 8, 1990. The navy tender never traveled the Neches River, and no other ship has ever come close to hitting the bottom of the bridge.

Lorecia East, History and Progress of Jefferson County (Dallas: Royal, 1961). Texas Highways, November 1988. Ben Woodhead, Beaumont at Large (1968). WPA Federal Writers' Project, Port Arthur (Houston: Anson Jones Press, 1940).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mildred S. Wright, “Rainbow Bridge,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rainbow-bridge.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
August 21, 2015