The Jefferson Highway was one of America’s earliest highway systems. It connected New Orleans Louisiana to Winnipeg, Canada about a decade before the federal numbered highway system was created. Over time, it was supplanted by other highways (much like Route 66) but it still enjoys enthusiasm from dedicated fans and communities that take pride in their place along this historic road. In Oklahoma, it crossed the Red River near Colbert and headed north. Muskogee was the largest town on the road between Dallas and Kansas City.
In the early 1920s, there were rumblings that the Jefferson Highway might be re-aligned to bypass the greater Muskogee area due to the volume of toll bridges. This included the nearby town of Okay. So, Wagoner County commissioned a new bridge across the Verdigris River there. As quirky as it is to have a town named Okay in Oklahoma, it wasn’t adopted as a joke. The Oklahoma Auto Manufacturing Company had a factory there where they made O.K. Truck oil tankers. Like numerous other communities, the town name honored a local economic driver.
The new bridge in Okay started construction in late 1921. On February 23rd, 1922 workers were bolting the western through-truss to the concrete piers. Ten minutes after the last man got down to go to lunch, heavy winds blew the span into the river. This caused a delay (as you might imagine) but the free bridge opened later that year and it served the community for decades as a part of State Highway 16. The end came in the late 1960s, when the Verdigris River itself was re-channeled as a part of the McClellan-Kerr waterway project.
The aerial photo above from March 1971 shows the Okay bridge (highlighted) bypassed by the new channel. It was a bridge to nowhere, but it remained in place assumedly due to cost to remove it. There it remained…abandoned, save for the occasional fisherman. By the time I saw it for the first time in 2014, it had been abandoned for almost as long as it had been in service.
The first thing I noticed on that first visit wasn’t the bridge, but the ruins. Stone walls from the old factory (which operated as the Okay Airplane Company after the truck manufacturer went out) were still standing near the east bank of the Verdigris River, not too far from the bridge.
When I saw the bridge, it was clear that it was compromised in multiple ways. The eastern approach pony truss had fallen, meaning a walk across was out of the question. The wooden deck wasn’t wholly intact anymore, anyway, so that was probably for the best. The western span was noticeably askew; the concrete pier was crumbling and the huge steel truss was starting to slip. It was a miracle that it was still mostly standing, honestly. Still, I enjoyed walking around the bridge, taking photos and imagining a world when this was in heavy use. Who knew how much longer it would be around?
On February 23rd 2022, exactly 100 years after high winds knocked part of the bridge into the river, another winter storm came through. A loud crash was heard throughout the town. The western span of the old bridge had celebrated the centennial of its own collapse by doing the same thing all over again.
Only this time, there is nobody to fix it up and put it back. Here it shall remain until someone decides it’s a good use of time, energy, and money to disassemble it. When that day comes, I imagine the rest of the bridge will come down with it. Who knows if that day will ever come?
My trip to Okay wasn’t all somber, though. Another shout-out to Roger Bell for recommending a new restaurant that was MORE than okay: The Black Pearl Café. The folks were friendly and my chicken fried steak sandwich was KILLER. I would seriously drive the 45 minutes from Tulsa just to eat there again. The Google Maps location still shows Martin’s (the former restaurant) but they’re on Facebook. Highly recommended!