ASCE Names Huey P. Long Bridge a Civil Engineering Landmark

ASCE's president, Andrew W. Herrmann speaking at the Huey P. Long Bridge ceremony
The Huey P. Long Bridge was honored at a ceremony held on September 28 as part of ASCE’s Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program. The Society’s president, Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.SEI, F.ASCE, was on hand for the event. “The Huey P. Long Bridge,” he said, “is an example of how engineers push the limits of their knowledge of materials, design theories, and methods to advance state-of-the-art engineering.” Jefferson Parish Public Information Office
By Doug Scott
When it was completed, in December 1935, the Huey P. Long Bridge, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, was the first Mississippi River crossing in the New Orleans area to accommodate both railroad cars and automobiles. Designed by the Polish-American engineer Ralph Modjeski, the cantilever steel truss bridge carried a two-track railroad line as well as two lanes of Highway 90 in each direction. Until 1950 it was the longest railroad bridge in the world.

Named in honor of Huey P. Long, who served as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, the bridge today is in the final phase of a comprehensive widening project undertaken as part of Louisiana’s TIMED (Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development) Program. Targeted for completion in 2013, the bridge will have three 11 ft lanes in each direction with 8 ft outside and 2 ft inside shoulders.

At a dedication ceremony held at the base of the bridge on September 28, ASCE paid tribute to the remarkable construction and engineering prowess embodied in the Huey P. Long Bridge by recognizing the structure in its Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program. A memorial plaque mounted on one of the original piers was unveiled during the ceremony.

“The Huey P. Long Bridge,” said ASCE’s president, Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.SEI, F.ASCE, at the ceremony, “is an example of how engineers push the limits of their knowledge of materials, design theories, and methods to advance state-of-the-art engineering.

“This combination of a railroad and a highway bridge was the longest and highest steel railroad bridge in the United States when it was opened, in 1935. The engineers faced overwhelming challenges during both design and construction due to soil conditions and extremely high clearances needed to clear river navigation. This bridge could not have been built without the creativity, tenacity, and innovative minds of civil engineers.”

“The history of this bridge is almost as colorful as its namesake,” added Sherri LeBas, who heads the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. “While the bridge was an amazing engineering accomplishment when it was built, it is not how we would build a bridge now. We are showing the world how a major river bridge can and should be rebuilt for today’s drivers.”

Joining Herrmann and LeBas at the ceremony were Malay Ghose Hajra, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the president of the ASCE Louisiana Section’s New Orleans Branch; John Young, the president of Jefferson Parish; Elton Lagasse, the chair of Jefferson Parish’s council; John Morrow, the general manager of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad; and Steve Spohrer, P.E., M.ASCE, the director of the TIMED Program.

“ASCE is recognizing what civil engineers in New Orleans have always known,” said Ghose Hajra. “The design and construction of the Huey P. Long Bridge was a groundbreaking achievement for our country and the world. We are extremely proud to have played a role in getting this historic recognition for this historic bridge.”

The engineering firm Modjeski and Masters began design work on the bridge in 1925. However, it encountered problems with the foundations because the land in and around New Orleans was formed by silt deposits brought down the Mississippi. Since the clay topsoil was compressible and unsuitable for foundation loads, the foundations had to rest on deeper layers of soil. The engineers designed the bridge so that the main piers were seated on a layer of fine sand at considerable depth.

Recognizing the needs of a population that was coming to rely on motor vehicles, Governor Long had vehicular lanes added to the bridge during construction, which began in 1932. He provided the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which owns and maintains the bridge, with an additional $7 million to build the two narrow lanes in each direction. The lanes were adequate for the types of vehicles and limited traffic of the 1930s but are not wide enough by today’s standards.

“Huey Long prided himself on forward-thinking and well-designed infrastructure projects,” said Russell Long Mosely, the governor’s great-grandson, at the ceremony. “The family of Huey Long is delighted that this bridge has been designated a civil engineering landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

ASCE’s Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program was established to recognize historically significant local, national, and international civil engineering projects, structures, and sites. So far more than 200 projects around the world have been formally recognized through the program, among them Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower, the Suez Canal, the Statue of Liberty, the Panama Canal, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The objective of the program is to call attention to achievements in this country and abroad that have advanced the field of civil engineering and benefited society at large. The program also seeks to foster an interest in the history of civil engineering and a desire to preserve significant engineering achievements of the past.

“As we recognize the importance of this past achievement, we should take a moment to look to the future,” concluded Herrmann. “The future of our great country is directly dependent upon the condition of our infrastructure, including roads and bridges, built by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

“They had foresight; they were building for the future. Unfortunately, we are not maintaining the infrastructure they built for us as well as we should, and we are not investing in the infrastructure we need for the future. So, while we are honoring the Huey P. Long Bridge, which has been well maintained and continues to serve us well, and the engineers responsible for this technical achievement, let us also think about the future, about maintaining what civil engineers built in the past, and also think about the infrastructure we need for the future.”

For more information about ASCE’s Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program, click here.