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Pistol Bridge Porter: A historical perspective

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September 29, 2017

The name of Crying Eagle Brewery’s robust dark ale Pistol Bridge Porter connects us directly with the adventuresome history of this corner of Louisiana and the unique choice of a bridge designer in 1948 to highlight that romantic past.

The Pistol Bridge is the common name for the World War II Memorial Bridge engineered and designed in 1948 and opened in 1951.   The bridge was intended to carry four lanes of Highway 90 traffic across the Calcasieu River.  Later in 1957, when the new Interstate Highway system was developed, the Pistol Bridge was grandfathered into the new 1-10 freeway, despite not actually meeting interstate highway standards even at that time.   The Federal Highway Administration promised us a new bridge back in 1957, and even today, 60 years later, that promise has not been fulfilled.  Traffic on Interstate 10 and US Highway 90 is still carried over the Calcasieu River on the Pistol Bridge.

When it opened on September 28th of 1951, almost exactly 66 years ago, the Pistol Bridge was the marvel of Southwest Louisiana. It was imposingly tall and gave a sweeping view of the City, the lakes and river, and the growing industrial landscape.  Seen from the south, it made a graceful arch over the river and the nightly twinkling lights of moving traffic, viewed from a distance, made for an inspiring view of progress and motion.  It had been designed to be a part of one of Louisiana’s busiest roadways, but it also was designed to be picturesque and to tell a bit of our colorful past.  It was, by design, embellished with symbolic imagery of our heritage.  

As late as the mid 1950’s, designers often included elements of Louisiana’s heritage on the State’s bridges, generally cast in metal and attached to bridge railings.  Designers of the 1936 Huey P Long Bridge in Baton Rouge which carries Highway 190 over the Mississippi River started the practice by using cast-iron fleur-de-lis ornaments which honored the first explorers and settlers of the state.  Unfortunately, the fleur-de-lis castings were removed when the railings on that bridge were replaced in the mid-1960s.  For a bridge in Bogalusa, there were pinecones that connected with the historic timber industry of that city.  In New Orleans, magnolias were used.   For four hundred and twenty four bridges all over the state there was the image of the pelican, the state bird, pressed into railing posts.  Many of these early highway bridges are gone, replaced by newer, less decorative bridges. On others, these decorative details have been removed or covered, bits of heritage gone or vandalized.  But at least on one surviving bridge, the decorative elements are still in place.

In Lake Charles, the motif for the new bridge was crossed derringers.  Department of Highways designer N. E. Lant used 5,286 pairs of crossed decorative cast-iron pistols incorporated into the bridge railing that lined the narrow pedestrian walkways.  The original castings were made by Boone Foundry Works of Lawtell, Louisiana.  In time, missing or damaged pistols were recast and replaced, first by an Alabama foundry in the late 1980’s and again in the 2000’s during overhauls of the bridge by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.   Missing pistols continue to be replaced to retain the integrity of the railing.

The Pistol Bridge is a cantilevered truss bridge with a clearance of 135 feet above the navigable channel of the Calcasieu River.  Its railings are graced with continuous bands of cast crossed derringer pistols of the kind used in 18th and 19th century duels.  The design is inspired by the firearms preferred by highwaymen in romantic novels, and by pirates and privateers who roamed the high seas for treasure and adventure.

The derringer motif relates to the very earliest days of Calcasieu, days when this area was the coastal edge of the first No Man’s Land.  Those were the days of Jean Lafitte, the famed Gulf Coast pirate, who would have been no stranger to the use of those very firearms.  

 

 

 

©2017, Adley Cormier, 631 Sixth Street, Lake Charles, LA  70601, ajpcormier@gmail.com all rights reserved to the researcher and author.

 

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