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US-81 bridge opening highlights El Reno’s highway history

Friday, September 24, 2021

The City of El Reno and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation recreated a historic moment Friday by opening the US-81 Rock Island bridge to traffic nearly 75 years to the day of the original bridge’s dedication.

El Reno Mayor Matt White and Secretary of Transportation and ODOT Executive Director Tim Gatz joined the El Reno City Council and community members Friday afternoon to celebrate the opening of a $10 million reconstruction project. This new, four-lane bridge with 5-foot protected sidewalks replaces a structurally deficient bridge that originally opened Sept. 20, 1946.

“This bridge serves as a gateway to the heart of El Reno while also providing a safe crossing for vehicles and pedestrians over a railroad line,” Gatz said. “Connecting communities to highway corridors and interstates, as this bridge does, is critical for both safe transportation and economic opportunities. We are excited to open the US-81 Rock Island bridge back up to traffic today while honoring the city’s rich Route 66 transportation history.”

The city’s connection with Route 66 is on display through aesthetic elements added along the bridge’s walls and decorative pillars. Route 66 co-locates with US-81 along this corridor, meaning travelers from across the globe interested in America’s iconic Mother Road often drive this bridge as part of their exploration of the historic route.

“It is a wonderful project between the City of El Reno and ODOT. We cannot thank ODOT enough for allowing us to be a part of the process,” Mayor White said. “This bridge project allowed us to keep our identity as a wonderful community with rich history, yet also show our commitment to embracing the future.”

At age 15, El Reno resident Dean Rinehart, now 90, attended the original dedication in 1946 with his father, state Sen. Jim Rinehart, who advocated for the original funding to build the bridge. Dean Rinehart highlighted the history and meaning of the bridge to the community, including what it was like to skate and play with other children on the partially built structure during World War II. Work had stopped for about three years due to a nationwide steel shortage during the war.

“This is an important day,” Rinehart said, “We had been stymied by the war. It hurt to do anything, but this bridge was an opportunity to improve the city and allowed it to expand and bring in traffic. Opening up this route helped a lot of people.”

Much like the opening day in 1946, Friday’s event featured the El Reno High School Marching Band leading a parade across the bridge. New to the procession this time were representatives of the El Reno Cruisers driving classic cars on the bridge to complete the ceremony.

Work by Sherwood Construction Co. Inc., of Tulsa, and Frontier Bridge Inc. began in February 2020 with the 382-foot-long bridge fully opening to traffic by Friday evening. While opening, motorists may experience some intermittent, short lane closures into early October as the contractor makes final touches to the project.

FOR A VIDEO RECAP of the event, click here:

Friday's ribbon cutting ceremony is almost 75 years to the day of the original dedication event for the US-81/Route 66 Rock Island bridge in El Reno.
The El Reno High School Marching Band led the procession off the US-81 Rock Island bridge after Friday's ribbon cutting ceremony.
This aerial view shows the new US-81/Route 66 Rock Island bridge leading into El Reno. Construction started February 2020 and all four lanes were opened to traffic Friday.
El Reno community members gathered on the then-new US-81/Route 66 Rock Island overpass bridge near Elm St. for the opening dedication ceremony Sept. 20, 1946. Friday, a new bridge was opened in its place 75 years later. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society,
Last Modified on Sep 24, 2021
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