Historic Jefferson Highway Bridge in Okay Collapses

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Century-old through truss bridge gives way after center pier crumbles. Future of last standing truss bridge remains open.

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OKAY, OK- At this time last year, the Jefferson Highway Bridge, spanning the Verdigris River at Okay, in Oklahoma, was being written up as the first Endangered TRUSS Bridge article in the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, reincarnating the original TRUSS Awards that was created by the late James Baughn for bridgehunter.com.   It finished tied for fifth with two other bridges in the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category of Endangered Truss. The bridge appeared to have some hope although one of the two standing Parker through trusses is hanging by a thread due to a crumbling center pier.

That crumbling center pier may have put the last nails in the coffin for the bridge, as we fast forward to the present.

During the early morning hours of February 22-23rd, it took only a half minute for the through truss span to finally give out, taking with it the outer pony truss approach span. The bridge collapse is symbolic for it happened one day before its 100th anniversary of the infamous bridge collapse- ironically involving the same span- during the time of its construction. Winds from a storm blew down the span into the Old Channel of the Verdigris River, killing three people that were on the bridge. That bridge span was later rebuilt and opened to traffic later that year, incorporating it into the second oldest highway in the US, the Jefferson Highway, which opened seven years earlier and connected Winnepeg, Canada to New Orleans and Dallas.

With the latest collapse involving the bridge span, which was built by a Tulsa-based bridge building company, chances of rebuilding the bridge, which had been abandoned for over two decades, is close to zero. The only chance to save the last standing through truss span, would have to be done by lifting the span off the crumbling pier and relocating it to a different location on land. But with the finances and questions involving the stability of the standing truss span, chances of salvaging it are slim. According to information by Tim Alexander, who together with Payden Metzger have provided photos of the collapsed bridge, there is no word from the mayor of Okay regarding the future of the remaining standing truss span.

The collapse of the Okay Bridge should serve as a reminder that historic bridges require maintenance just as much as a original bridge. If a bridge has as much value as the bridge in Okay, or any other historic bridge, then it should be repurposed with the goal of maintaining it for future use. In the case of the Okay Bridge, years of abandonment may have doomed it to removal. While there may be a chance to salvage the last standing span, the question at this point is: Is it worth it?

A gallery of photos can be found here. As mentioned before, Tim Alexander took the on ground shots shortly after the collapse. Payden Metzger did the drone shots. Many thanks for the use of photos.  An article by Rhys Martin looks at not only the collapse of this bridge but also the state of the town of Okay as it slowly becomes a ghost town. You can click here to see it, but it will also appear in the Chronicles as well.

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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