History was made Friday in Purcell and Lexington, just as it was more than 80 years ago when the two cities celebrated the grand opening of a new bridge connecting their communities. The new James C. Nance Memorial Bridge that links the twin cities, located less than one mile apart, fully opened to traffic with much fanfare on Friday, July 26, the culmination of a major two-year, expedited reconstruction project. 

The cities of Purcell and Lexington, the Heart of Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, along with many officials and community members, gathered on the structure to cut the ribbon on the new 3,700-foot bridge that spans the South Canadian River and the BNSF railroad on US-77/SH-39. 

In attendance was a special guest, former Purcell mayor and longtime resident Ron Fishburn, who was only 5 years old when the previous Purcell-Lexington bridge opened in 1938, just prior to World War II - when a loaf of bread cost 9 cents and a gallon of gas only 10 cents. He spoke to the crowd about the importance of the bridge to the community, as one of the only crossings in the area. 

“This bridge speaks for itself, it's an integral part of our community,” Fishburn said. “When I was 5 years old, I was excited to see this brand new, big bridge. Now the bridge is bigger and wider than ever before and most importantly, it connects the two greatest small towns in Oklahoma.”

The project replaced a structurally deficient, narrow, two-lane bridge with a modern four-lane structure with shoulders and a protected bicycle and pedestrian pathway. Also included are bridge aesthetics, streetlights and educational displays on each end to tell the story of the historic crossing. 

The previous bridge was remembered for its service as the community’s vital link for the better part of a century, along with the ordeal when the bridge was closed for several months in 2014 for emergency repairs. Although the bridge was not even scheduled in the department’s Eight-Year Construction Work Plan for replacement at that time, ODOT immediately began planning a reconstruction project. The planning, environmental review and design processes were expedited and a project was prepared by ODOT and approved by the federal government in less than three years and then constructed in under two years, rather than the 10 years for design, review and construction it often takes.

“To have accelerated this major infrastructure project in only three years and completed construction in less than two years is a major engineering, planning and construction accomplishment. There is reason to celebrate today in bringing these communities back together and in such record time,” Secretary of Transportation and ODOT Executive Director Tim Gatz said. 

The department has been aggressively reducing the overwhelming number of structurally deficient bridges on the highway system over the past decade, addressing more than 1,400 bridges with major work since 2006. 

“Oklahoma has replaced more structurally deficient bridges in the past 10 years than any state in the nation,” District 3 Transportation Commissioner T.W. Shannon said. “Thanks to the commitment to infrastructure from the Legislature and governor, ODOT is able to keep delivering major projects like this one, which helps drive our state’s continued economic growth.”

“Our two cities have a lot of traffic between us. The new bridge includes the added safety of a four-lane highway with shoulders and a path for those walking or cycling between the two towns,” Purcell Mayor Ted Cox said. “We are so excited about this project completion for our area. This bridge reminds us that we are really one community in many ways.”

“Thank you to the communities and ODOT for coming together during the reconstruction and creating this fantastic bridge,” Lexington Mayor David Adams said at the event, “This new modern bridge will bring our two cities into the future and keep our local economy strong. It will facilitate travel for tourists and everyday commerce between the two towns.” 

The old bridge was abruptly closed for more than four months in 2014 after numerous cracks were discovered in its structural members at the conclusion of a routine ODOT rehabilitation project. The closure cut off the only local crossing of the river and railroad, forcing drivers on a 45-minute detour to get between the two cities. With the help of national bridge and metallurgy experts, ODOT determined the historic bridge was the only one of its kind in existence to have been constructed in the 1930s using a rare manganese steel, which is prone to cracking when welded upon, as was done during the department’s routine project. Contractors for ODOT carried out a challenging and complex emergency repair using hundreds of specially fabricated brackets, tension rods and plates to strengthen the damaged bridge and reopen it to traffic. 

The $38 million construction contract for the new bridge that included financial incentives for early completion was awarded in fall 2017 to Webber LLC of The Woodlands, Texas, and construction began later that year. The new bridge was built one-half at a time, allowing the crossing to remain open to traffic during construction. The old bridge was deconstructed in 2018 to make way for the second half of the new structure. The bridge is named in honor of James C. Nance, a longtime area newspaperman and state lawmaker who served from the 1920s to the 1960s.