There’s more than one Texas bridge that can be especially troubling for those with gephyrophobia—fear of crossing bridges. The U.S. 90 bridge over the Pecos River can certainly give you the willies. The Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge can give you pause if you’re hit with the outer bands of a tropical storm when you’re on it. Some of those five-stack interchanges in Dallas and Houston can cause a palpitation or two.
But, in my opinion, the scariest bridge in Texas is the Rainbow Bridge between Port Arthur and Orange, on Texas Highway 73. It offers a triple threat. You can see it coming from a long way off. It has a steep ascent and descent. And it rises frighteningly high over water. These are the things gephyrophobics most dread.
The Rainbow Bridge is scary enough today, with two lanes for one-way traffic southbound, but it used to be much worse. It is 20 stories tall, and drivers had to put up with two narrow lanes carrying cars and loaded 18-wheelers in two directions. When it was completed in 1938, it was the second-tallest bridge in the U.S., second only to the Golden Gate Bridge. (The Veterans Memorial Bridge, built just yards away and completed in 1990, carries one-way traffic northbound.)
As you arrived near the top of the Rainbow Bridge, all you could see was sky in the daytime and the stars at night. You had to have faith that the pavement would be there when you drove over the hump, and that was enough to make some folks take a 30-mile detour. Local driver’s education teachers often made students navigate over that bridge on their first day of class.
Originally it was called the Port Arthur-Orange Bridge. I long believed that the Rainbow Bridge name came from Norse mythology, wherein the rainbow bridge connects heaven and earth. But no. In 1957 the North Port Arthur Lions Club had a naming contest, and 6-year-old Christy McClintock submitted the winning entry—Rainbow Bridge. She said it looked like a mechanical rainbow. You will agree if you are there near sunset and see it illuminated in the shimmering hues of the evening. McClintock earned a $50 U.S. savings bond as her prize.
Why was the bridge, with 177 feet of vertical clearance, built so tall? It crossed an important ship channel and builders wanted the tallest ship in the Navy at the time, the USS Patoka, to be able to pass easily beneath it, pulling a dirigible.
The Rainbow Bridge was more than an engineering marvel. It was also a magnet for teenagers in the night. The high school kids in the area used to climb up into the catwalks. One of those students was destined for worldwide fame. It is said that she used to sit up there high above the moonlit waters of the Neches River and sing in her passionately raw style. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. Janis Joplin? Her biographer, Myra Friedman, said Joplin would sing up there under the great Texas sky and “scorch the stars.” But that’s a whole other story.
The tallest ship in the Navy never did pass beneath the Rainbow Bridge. Seems a shame. Somewhat like a bride having planned a perfect wedding, but the groom never showed.
W.F. Strong is a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and first wrote this story for Texas Standard.