End Of O.K. Allen Bridge 'Bittersweet' For Local Women

ALEXANDRIA, LA (AP) — When Martha Kay Gleason rode over the O.K. Allen Bridge, she thought about her daddy "every single time."

         Her father, James E. Bamber Sr., was one of the workers who helped build the bridge, which was completed in 1936, three years before she was born.

         The O.K. Allen Bridge over the Red River was closed in March when one span of the Curtis-Coleman Memorial Bridge opened, and the 79-year-old structure was scheduled to be demolished Saturday.

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         Gleason, an Alexandria resident, is thankful she has a few small souvenirs from the bridge as family keepsakes. She said project engineer John Gagnard graciously brought her some discarded pieces of steel from the O.K. Allen Bridge as mementoes.

         "I'm always glad for forward motion, progress. I know it's a relic, and it needs to be replaced for safety issues, the narrow lanes and all of that, but it's still a little bittersweet, a little nostalgic," Gleason said of the end of the O.K. Allen Bridge era.

         While the passing of the old bridge into history might elicit nostalgia, the new bridge was very much needed. The O.K. Allen Bridge had been determined to be "functionally obsolete" by the state Department of Transportation and Development.

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         "It was way past its prime," said Gagnard, a retired DOTD official who now works for Pan American Engineers, which is providing the construction engineering and inspection for the bridge replacement project.

         The old bridge was closed to heavy truck traffic years ago for safety reasons.

         "It was getting close to its service life," Gagnard said of the bridge. "The steel structure wasn't in that bad a shape, but the concrete deck itself was getting in bad shape. . It's time for the new bridge."

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         Not only does the new bridge not have the weight, height and width restrictions that the O.K. Allen Bridge had, he said, but "we're going from a two-lane road and two-lane bridge to a four-lane road and a four-lane bridge all the way back to Kingsville."

         The demolition had been scheduled for Sept. 19 but was postponed a week.

         Construction of the O.K. Allen Bridge was completed in 1936. The narrow, two-lane bridge featured a total length of about 1,900 feet and a main span length of about 500 feet. It was called a K-truss bridge because of the "K'' shapes of some of its superstructure framing.

         The bridge was named in honor of Oscar K. Allen Sr., a Winn Parish native who was the 42nd governor of Louisiana. He died at the age of 53 while still serving as governor in 1936, the year the bridge was completed.

         The concrete from the bridge and the ramps leading to the main span of the O.K. Allen Bridge have been removed, and all of the materials were salvaged. The iconic steel superstructure and the concrete piers are all that is left.

         At some future date, the concrete piers will be demolished, primarily using jackhammers to reduce them to about 3 feet above the water. Then explosives will be placed in holes drilled down to about 5 feet below the river bottom.

         "We'll put some steel mats over them so the debris won't fly, and then he'll blow them up. Then we'll come in with a clamshell on the crane, and we'll have to pick all of that concrete out of the river," Gagnard said.

         Memories of the bridge will always have a special place in Gleason's family.

         Gleason said that when she and her children, Mark, Christopher and Melissa, would be riding over the O.K. Allen Bridge, "it's a joke in our family. Whenever we'd cross over there, 'OK, your papa helped build this bridge.'"

         Sometimes if she's riding over a bridge with her young grandchildren, they'll ask her, "Did your daddy work on this bridge too?"

         When Bamber helped build the O.K. Allen Bridge, he was working for an Alexandria construction company owned by William "Bill" Smith, who was also commissioner of streets and parks for Alexandria, Gleason said.

         Bamber, who is now deceased, also worked on many construction projects in the Baton Rouge area, including the Huey P. Long-O.K. Allen Bridge over the Mississippi River at Airline Highway, commonly referred to as "the old bridge." He eventually had his own construction company based out of Denham Springs and was involved with the Louisiana Associated General Contractors.

         Gleason, a retired choral director at Alexandria Senior High School, grew up in Alexandria, but she and her husband, George, moved to Baton Rouge for a while, and Bamber used to take her and her children to construction sites on weekends to show them how things worked.

         "They (her children) were just fascinated with the bar pits. He'd put them in the drag-line buckets and pull them up and all kinds of fun things like that. Walk up and down the levees," Gleason recalled.

         He also took them to construction equipment auctions. "It sounds crazy, but it was fun," Gleason said.

         She still marvels at how her father, with only about a sixth-grade education, had a mind for engineering. He started at the bottom in the construction business, but he learned it inside and out, and that's why he eventually was able to operate his own company, she said.

         Gleason will miss seeing the O.K. Allen Bridge.

         "The first time I heard we're replacing the O.K. Allen Bridge, I told my sons, 'Oh, my goodness, that's another nostalgic moment for me because I hate to see another old thing go,'" Gleason said.

         "It's been there a long time, and I told them I know it was before I was born, but not by far, and I'm a relic now, so I know that the bridge needs to be replaced," she said with a laugh.

         – by AP/ Reporter Richard Sharkey with The Town Talk

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