Monday, November 26, 2018

Monday Memories: The Ski Jump

You can get a pretty good idea how long somebody has been around Azle by how they react if you mention the Ski Jump. If they have no idea what you’re talking about, they probably haven’t been in town long, since everybody hears about the Ski Jump sooner or later. But only those of us who have been around here since the early Sixties know why it’s called that.

First of all, despite the fact that the town is just west of Eagle Mountain Lake, there are no actual mountains anywhere around Azle, and certainly not any where anybody would be skiing. People do water ski on the lake, and for all I know there might be some ramps somewhere that they use for jumping. But that has nothing to do with the Ski Jump.

As far back as I remember, the street where I lived turned off the service road of State Highway 199, which was a four-lane, divided highway with a grass median between the eastbound and westbound lanes and also a two-lane, two-way service road on each side, also separated from the highway by grass medians. It was a nice highway for the time, but I recall, early on in my life, it ran for less than half a mile past the street where I lived and then abruptly ended at a crossover, except for the service road on our side of the highway, which curved to the left and continued on through downtown Azle. The state had built the divided highway that far and then stopped, I guess because they had to wait for more funds to become available.

Sometime around 1959 or ’60, construction began to extend the divided highway around downtown. Main Street, which had been Highway 199, would be designated Loop 344 (which it is to this day). However, some engineer came up with an interesting idea for the exit ramp to that loop. Instead of an exit to the right from the westbound lanes, after which traffic for the downtown loop would continue along that service road to an overpass or underpass, the two westbound lanes of the highway climbed an embankment, at the top of which they split. The right-hand lane continued on, while the left-hand lane made a very sharp turn to the left, onto a bridge that crossed over the eastbound lanes and then descended to merge with Main Street. Got that?

I have a hunch you can figure out what happened after this oddly designed left-hand exit opened around 1961. It was new, so people weren’t really familiar with it, and some of them were driving too fast, and there may have been alcohol involved at times (Highway 199, also known as the Jacksboro Highway, was infamous for the beer joints that lined it on both sides from downtown Fort Worth all the way to Azle) . . .

Yep, you’re right. Several times over the next couple of years, for whatever reasons, drivers suddenly found themselves at the top of that rise and couldn’t make the sharp turn to the left. Instead they crashed through the guard rail and their cars sailed through the air—like skiers coming off a ski jump—and landed either in the median or in the eastbound lanes of the highway, resulting in fatalities, many injuries, and much destruction. It was a mess.

So, realizing their mistake, the highway department closed down that exit, leveled off the embankment leading up to it, and laid down two regular lanes of highway on that side. They built a standard right-hand exit to the westbound service road a couple of hundred yards back. And since the bridge over the eastbound lanes was still there, they just extended it over the westbound lanes as well, over to the service road, where people who wanted to go to downtown Azle could turn onto it, follow it over the highway, and then swoop down to Main Street on the remaining part of what had already become known far and wide as the Ski Jump.

And even though the deadly design responsible for that name has been gone for almost sixty years, people around here still call that bridge the Ski Jump, although I suspect fewer and fewer of them do so, and many of the ones who do don’t really know why it’s called that. I’m sure there’ll come a time when nobody knows, and after that a time when nobody even calls it that anymore. But a lot of us will remember as long as we’re around, and now you know the rest of the story, too, as Paul Harvey used to say.

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