Endangered TRUSS: The Jefferson Highway Bridge at Okay, Oklahoma

All photos courtesy of Mark W. Brown

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OKAY, OKLAHOMA- There are many historic structures that are endangered because of the need to have a concrete bridge to move traffic from point A to point B. There are some that have been sitting abandoned- many of which for too long and need the attention of the public to save it from its ultimate doom. When I think of the first endangered TRUSS candidate, the first bridge that comes to mind is this one: The Okay Truss Bridge. The bridge spans the old channel of the Verdigris River to the west of the town of Okay in Wagoner County. The structure was first discovered a decade ago and even though it has been abandoned for several decades, records have indicated that the structure was once part of the Jefferson Highway, the second oldest intercontinental highway that was built in 1915 and went from Winnepeg, Canada to New Orleans, cutting through parts of Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma in the process.

There is not much information on the bridge’s history except to say that given the materials needed to build the structure, let alone the features, the bridge must have been built between 1910 and 1915, as part of the project to extend the Jefferson Highway through the small community. The bridge features two Parker through truss main spans. Each span features a 3-rhombus Howe Lattice portal bracings with angled heels, latticed struts and V-laced vertical beams. There is also a Pratt pony truss span on each outer end of the bridge. The connections are pinned and the material: steel for the trusses and wood for the decking.

Westernmost pony truss approach span

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The bridge was later bypassed by another structure to the south, as part of the project to rechannel the Verdigris and the truss span has been sitting abandoned and in disarray ever since. The easternmost pony truss span collapsed many years ago and it would take a lot of climbing just to get onto the bridge itself.

The gravest problem though lies with the through truss spans because of a failing pier. It is unknown when and how this occurred, but the center pier is crumbling, causing the end post of the western through truss span to slip.

While the damage may be minimal when looking at it from a bird’s eye view, when on the bridge, it is far worse than it seems, as the crumbling pier, combined with the sagging of the endpost, is causing the western truss span to lean and twist on its side.

The twisted metal brought a reminder of one bridge that fell victim to flooding in 1990, which was the Rockport Bridge in Arkansas. Prior to its downfall, flooding in 1987 caused severe damage to the center piers causing the center span to tilt and twist. This is exactly what is happening to the Okay Truss Bridge, and if nothing is done with the truss span, the next flooding may be the bridge’s last.

What can be done to save the truss bridge? The easiest is to take the truss spans off the piers and dismantle them for storage. As it happened with the Bridgeport Bridge in Michigan, the twisted western Parker truss span could be straightened through welding, whereas the trusses in general would need to be sandblasted and repainted. The piers would need to be replaced and because the easternmost pony span is considered a total loss, a replacement span could take its place if one reerects the restored truss span and converts the area on the east end and the island between the old and new channels of the Verdigris into a park area. As this bridge is part of the original Jefferson Highway, research is needed on the structure’s history to nominate it to the National Register.

Oklahoma has seen a big drop in the number of truss bridges in the last two decades, yet efforts are being taken to save what is left of the bridges. There is little doubt that the Okay Truss Bridge can be saved if action is taken to salvage the trusses and rebuild the entire structure, while erecting a park to honor its history. It takes the will of not only the locals but also members of the Jefferson Highway Association to make it happen. Yet time is running out and we’re fighting windmills regarding even saving the truss structure before the next floodwaters. If there is a tiny sense of hope, removing and storing the trusses should be top priority. Afterwards, time and finances could be allotted to restore and rebuild the bridge to its former glory.

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Author’s Note: A big thanks to Mark W. Brown for allowing me to use his pictures for this article.

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