For most of Tulsa’s history, the Arkansas River has been nothing but a nuisance.
The water was no good for bathing, much less drinking, and the river itself was an obstacle to travelers.
So Tulsa County voters didn’t need much convincing in 1915, when local leaders asked them to pass a $200,000 bond issue to build a new reinforced concrete bridge across the river.
The bridge replaced the old wagon bridge, built in 1904 by three entrepreneurs and operated as a toll bridge before the county bought it.
A story in the Tulsa World just before the vote warned that the old bridge was “weak and may be torn away by high water at any time.”
Voters passed the bond issue by a vote of 2,617 to 412 on April 13, 1915.
Most of the support came from the Tulsa and Sand Springs, which would benefit the most due to plans for the bridge to carry an inter-urban railroad line linking the two cities as well as automobile traffic.
Completed in 1916, the 11th Street Bridge was the first major multi-span concrete bridge in Oklahoma and one of the longest concrete structures in the Midwest.
With its 18 graceful arches, the bridge was considered an architectural gem.
Later, Art Deco-style guardrails and lighting fixtures were added and it was widened with a second arched bridge connected to the original.
Without it, Tulsa wouldn’t be the city it is today.
The bridge was a boon to local commuters and a necessity to the oil industry after discovery of the Glenn Pool.
Dust Bowl refugees motoring west on Route 66 in search of a better life crossed the Arkansas River in Tulsa.
The 11th Street Bridge was the first automobile bridge to cross the Arkansas River anywhere along its 1,450-mile path across the flatlands of the nation, the late historian Beryl Ford told World reporter P.J. Lassek, according to a March 3, 2004, story.
Former Tulsa County Commissioner Cyrus Avery in 1924 was assigned the task of creating the U.S. highway system. When Route 66 was devised, Avery made sure the route passed through his hometown.
The sturdy bridge served countless travelers for 60 years.
But by the 1970s, it was showing its age.
In April 1975 the city began closing lanes and placing load limits on the bridge due to safety concerns. That same year, the Tulsa City Commission had to pay a woman $1,100 after she fell up to her hips through a small hole in the bridge’s walkway and was injured while watching the KRMG Great Raft Race.
It was closed to vehicular traffic in 1980 and replaced with a new $3.5 million structure completed in 1981.
But money set aside to tear down the old bridge was reallocated to other projects. For years, Tulsa tried to figure out what to do with the relic.
Finally, in 2003, funds to restore the bridge for possible pedestrian use with fountains, period lighting and other amenities were included in the Vision 2025 package.
However, the Route 66 design committee studied a range of options and recommended against renovating the bridge, which could cost upwards of $15 million. Only aesthetic improvements were recommended – including removal of vegetation and cleaning and sealing cracks and crevices.
A city planner told the World in a May 18, 2008, story that restoring the bridge suitable for pedestrian use would be too expensive and such work would take away from the “authenticity of the bridge.”
Instead, it received a cosmetic restoration in 2008 costing $600,000.
Today, Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza, dedicated in 2012 and adorned with a sculpture entitled “East Meets West,” stands alongside the historic bridge.
And the Mother Road attracts a new breed of travelers to the site — tourists seeking to experience the romance of Route 66.
Read more Throwback Tulsa stories.