Then and Now: Calcasieu River Bridge

Then and Now: Calcasieu River Bridge

Hewitt Conner
Owen and Philip Conner listen to their grandfather as he tells them about his experience working on the I-10 Bridge.

A Review of Historic Sites in Southwest Louisiana

There are over 600,000 bridges in the United States and they all have something in common: they have a story worth telling. The bridge that 71,000 motorists a day use to travel over the Calcasieu River (approximately 23 million a year) has several names including the Jean Lafitte Bridge and the Calcasieu River Bridge, but to the locals it is simply known as the I-10 Bridge. Like many things in Southwest Louisiana the story of the I-10 Bridge is unique.

Connecting East and West Calcasieu Parish the I-10 Bridge is part of many area resident’s daily commute. On most days, when there is not a traffic accident or repair work being done, traveling across the bridge is quick and offers travelers a stunning view of Lake Charles and the Calcasieu River. However, at one time traveling across the river was not as easy as it is today.

Prior to the construction of the current bridge, motorists traveled on a small two-lane drawbridge that was located in-between Lake Charles and Prien Lake. By the 1940s it became evident that the area needed a new bridge that could accommodate the growth of the surrounding area. In 1944 preliminary plans began on a four-lane cantilever bridge with over 130 feet of clearance for ship traffic below.

Hewitt Conner
Hewitt Conner (bottom right) with fellow co-workers constructing the framework of the I-10 Bridge

Construction of the new Calcasieu River Bridge began in 1949 and for those who helped build the bridge it is an experience that will always make them feel proud. In 1950 Hewitt Conner, my grandfather, was a 22 year old carpenter’s apprentice who worked on the I-10 Bridge during its construction. One of his duties was making sure that the carpenters had the tools they needed throughout the day. At times he would run on the steel beams high above the water delivering tools. When I asked him if he got scared working in such conditions he said, “You had to be careful but you got to where you get brave.”

Conner’s bravery was demonstrated on his last day working on the bridge, Friday September 22nd 1950. The following week he was scheduled to leave for service in the army and spent the morning telling fellow co-workers goodbye. Later in the day he was working with Lester Lacour on top of some steel beams approximately 75 feet above the water. Suddenly Lacour lost his balance on the beam and began a free fall to the water below. Conner, without hesitation, jumped into the water to rescue him. When Conner reached Lacour he observed that his co-worker was conscious but in shock. He held Lacour afloat until a nearby safety boat picked them up. Both escaped without serious injury.

Conner recalled co-workers telling him, “You have some guts to jump that high.” He responded to his co-worker’s admiration by saying, “You don’t do it because you want to. You do it because you have to. Something was telling me jump, jump, and jump and follow him before he drowns.” Before Conner left town for the army his coworkers presented him a gift of $50 for his good deed. In a Lake Charles American Press article about the accident my grandfather was described as being “something special.” I think it is safe to say that anyone who meets Hewitt Conner would agree with that description.

The bridge became open to traffic on September 28th 1951. I asked my grandfather what he thought when he returned home from the army and looked at the completed bridge for the first time. With a proud look and smile on his face he said, “I couldn’t believe that we put that together in such a short period of time.”

Hewitt Conner
Over 60 years after its construction, Hewitt Conner stands proud next to the bridge that he helped build.

Today history is repeating itself as Southwest Louisiana out grows the I-10 Bridge. The bridge was originally part of Hwy 90 and not designed for interstate traffic. The Louisiana DOTD has preliminary plans to replace the current bridge but an environmental impact study and debate over how tall the new bridge should be is delaying the process. No matter what the future holds for the I-10 Bridge it will always be an important piece of Southwest Louisiana’s history and a fond memory for those who travel it frequently.