Lighting marks next stage for bridge

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I wonder if they ever got tired of the whistles.

Life in Natchez during the 19th century meant a steady stream of steamboats on the Mississippi River — most with working whistles to alert those nearby of their presence.

The steamboats carried people and freight, as Natchez was a major river port, and not many other modes of transportation existed.

It wasn’t until 1940 that the area’s still-grandest mode of transportation opened — the Mississippi River bridge.

Then, everything changed.

Perhaps it was the people of Vidalia that felt the initial change the most.

Corrine Randazzo was a young girl living in Vidalia at the time. She recounted her memories of life before the bridge in a 1989 commemorative issue of The Democrat.

“Natchez had the ballet school and the picture show. We always came over to Natchez for things of that nature,” she said.

Before the bridge, the ferry was the only way to get to dance class.

But once the bridge opened, residents largely abandoned the ferry. Quick trips to Natchez, much like Vidalia residents know so well today, became a way of life.

Randazzo said on the day the bridge opened, traffic was lined up to cross it.

Initially, the Natchez-Vidalia pass was a toll bridge, reportedly costing approximately 50 cents for car and driver and 10 cents per passenger.

It wasn’t until after the tollbooth went away that traffic across the river truly flourished.

And flourish, it did; in July 1988 a twin span was opened to accommodate the ever-growing level of traffic on the original bridge.

Today, estimates put the daily bridge traffic count at approximately 30,000 cars a day.

The completion of four-laning projects along U.S. 84 to the east and west in years to come bumps traffic estimates up to 42,000 daily.

And this week, the third biggest day in the lives of the Natchez-Vidalia bridges will light up the Miss-Lou, literally.

Former Natchez Mayor Butch Brown has been dreaming about lighting the bridge since he was mayor in the early 1990s. In his current job as director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, Brown started talking about the reality project openly more than six years ago.

The former Democrat editor who recruited me to town in 2003 made a point of walking me to the bluff, pointing to the bridges and talking about the soon-to-be-completed lighting project.

The news was one of several things that impressed me about Natchez. And though the wait was longer than most of us wanted, the final outcome is worth it.

If you missed seeing the fully-lit bridge last month, Friday’s switch flipping may likely be a shocker. If you, like me, have seen it before, then you know that it’s unlikely we’ll get tired of looking any time soon.

And though this latest project is an aesthetic one, it does mark a major change for the bridge that binds us.

The bridge changed life in the Miss-Lou for the better, forever.

Its presence represented the eventual extinction of the steamboat, took away the whistle, and will forever leave us wondering just how annoying that whistle really was.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.