A bridge's many lives: Bayou St. John
Did you know that the historic, blue-tinted bridge spanning Bayou St. John across from Cabrini High School—colloquially referred to as the “Cabrini Bridge,” or Magnolia Bridge—has not always lived where it lives now? For decades, it spanned the bayou at Esplanade Avenue, serving as the last link along that bustling artery connecting downtown with City Park and Metairie Road.
Imagine how many thousands of buggy wheels have rolled across its stretch! How many clopping horse hooves and clattering streetcars!
In 1909, before upgrading to a significantly larger steel trunnion bridge, they unhooked the Magnolia Bridge from its foundations and floated it down to its present location on a barge. The original idea was to re-erect it across from Grand Route St. John, but the curve at that spot in the bayou rendered the location less than ideal. So the bridge was set down in its current location, where it began its second life as a key artery for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods until it ceased serving vehicular traffic sometime in the middle of the last century.
The re-location of the old Magnolia Bridge in 1909 went off without a hitch, but the same cannot be said about the construction of the new bridge at Esplanade that same year. On May 19, 1909, the Times-Picayune reported that during a routine test during the bridge’s construction, "With a terrific crash, the span of the steel bascule trunnion bridge in course of construction at the Esplanade Street end, crossing Bayou St. John, snapped in twain, and the heavy superstructure fell into the bayou, effectually closing navigation of that waterway for some time to come. Five men were injured, one of them, Frank Cunningham, fatally, two others severely and two slightly…."
Frank Cunningham, originally from Oklahoma, Mississippi, was only 24 years old. Newly married, he had been living in New Orleans for eight years doing iron and steel work. When the new bridge “snapped in twain,” Cunningham “was struck on the head by a piece of iron…and, falling, the base of his skull was fractured. He lay there unconscious until he was carried to Picdeloup’s saloon, opposite, remaining there until the ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital.” 
The rest of the new bridge’s construction saw its fair share of mishaps and delays, even once repairs were made. In fact, its entire existence (before the present-day bridge at Esplanade replaced it) was besotted by inefficiencies, closures, and repairs. All in all, it seems our Magnolia Bridge was far more trustworthy—not to mention older, more unique, and, let’s face it, sexier (!).
This just goes to show you that a bridge, in all its day-to-day stillness, can be far more than it appears to be.
- "Bayou Bridge Wrecked, Killing One, Injuring Four. Steel Structure Across Esplanade Avenue Breaks Under Strain." Times-Picayune 19 May 1909: 5. NewsBank. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.