Atchafalaya Basin Bridge: History, Construction & Facts

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever driven on a bridge that passes by treetops? You would if you were traveling along I-10 in the heart of Louisiana. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the history, construction, and facts of the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge.

Where Is the Atchafalaya Basin?

Imagine how difficult it would be to build a bridge across a long swamp. That's how they constructed the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, also known as the Louisiana Airborne Memorial Bridge, in St. Martin's Parish in Louisiana. To understand the challenge of building this bridge, let's first cover some background on the geography and landscape.

The Atchafalaya Basin is one of the largest river swamp systems in the United States. Located in south-central Louisiana, the basin includes the Atchafalaya River, the Whiskey Basin, and several canals. The low ground here is prone to seasonal flooding, with much of it underwater, and it's dotted with cypress trees. The whole area is part of the massive floodplain of the Mississippi River.

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  • 2:04 Building the Bridge
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The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge

The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is a twin bridge that crosses over the basin on I-10, a major highway between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. A twin bridge is one in which two parallel bridges of similar size run side by side. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is one of Louisiana's busiest bridges. It's unclear exactly when bridge construction began, but both parts of the structure were built at the same time, and the bridge was open for traffic by 1973. When you drive on it, it seems to go on for a long time. The bridge is elevated in places, and you might notice that you're driving right by treetops. But why, if it's on low ground? Well, several rivers weave under the bridge and in some places it was built high enough to allow barges and tow boats to pass underneath.

The bridge is around eighteen miles long and made of a stringer design, meaning it uses a series of parallel steel beams to support a concrete deck. It's not a particularly attractive bridge, but serves an important purpose for this part of the state. Also known as the 'Swamp Expressway,' it includes two exits off the bridge into sparsely populated, rural bayou areas. The twin bridges merge when crossing Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel, a canal dredged in the 1930s for shipping traffic.

Building the Bridge

The saturated soils and winding riverbeds of the Atchafalaya Basin presented real challenges for the bridge's design and construction. Before work on the bridge began, a canal had to be dug through the swamp to the bridge's future location. This enabled barges with cranes to get to the work site and for the transport of needed materials as construction moved forward. Workers operating the cranes did all their work from the barges.

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