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Major investments have been rare in the Arkansas Delta in recent years. That's one reason the excitement was palpable on a Thursday morning late last month as Gov. Asa Hutchinson and others gathered alongside U.S. 49 near the Phillips County community of Barton. They were there to announce a $20 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville.

That $20 million will be matched (mostly with federal funds) by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism in order to complete the Delta Heritage Trail, an 84.5-mile biking and hiking route from Lexa in the north to Arkansas City in the south.

This $40 million will allow the trail to be completed during the next five years. The most expensive parts will be retrofitting former railroad bridges over the lower White River at a secluded spot known as Benzal (which Arkansas writer Keith Sutton once described as a "shantyboat town") and over the lower Arkansas River at Yancopin.

One might assume that the wildest, most remote parts of the state are in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. I contend they're here.

The majority of the Big Woods, the vast tract of bottomland forests that ran along both sides of the lower Mississippi River, was cleared decades ago for row-crop agriculture. The fact that this wilderness remains will make it an attraction for bikers and hikers from across the country.

Hutchinson estimated that a completed trail will result in a $7 million infusion into the Delta economy each year and create up to 600 jobs. He said a completed trail also will bring new energy to the Delta.

"Hikers and bikers will see bottomland hardwood forests and views from the levee that we don't see from our cars," Hutchinson said. "This is a great project for Arkansas."

On the north end of the Delta Heritage Trail, a 20.6-mile section of compacted gravel has been completed between Lexa and Elaine. On the south end there's a 14.4 mile paved section atop the Mississippi River levee from Arkansas City to Rohwer. along with a 9.4-mile section of compacted gravel from Rohwer to Watson. The middle section is the most expensive and likely wouldn't have been completed for decades had it not been for the support of the Walton Family Foundation.

What wasn't publicized at last month's announcement was that this will open a biking and hiking route from downtown Memphis to Arkansas City. It could become an international attraction if properly publicized.

On a late October day in 2016, a similar group of dignitaries had gathered on the Harahan Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River at Memphis. VIPs from Tennessee and Arkansas were there to celebrate the opening of the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian boardwalk that allows cyclists and walkers to cross the river.

The $18 million boardwalk, the longest of its kind in the country, was funded by federal, state and local government grants along with private contributions. Cyclists and walkers share the bridge with Union Pacific freight trains.

The Harahan Bridge, completed in 1916, supplemented the Frisco Bridge, which had been completed across the Mississippi River in 1892. Three railroad companies--Cotton Belt, Iron Mountain and Rock Island--built the Harahan Bridge as a joint project.

The 5,000-foot bridge had two railroad tracks in the middle with one-way wagonways bolted onto each side. It was named for James Harahan, a former president of Illinois Central Railroad who was killed in a train accident while the bridge was under construction.

The Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge (now the Interstate 55 bridge) was completed for automobiles in 1949 with sidewalks and four lanes for traffic. The Harahan roadways were closed.

"Unless you've been a train conductor, it's a view that you've not seen of downtown Memphis since 1949," Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said that day in 2016. "It's such a civic and cultural amenity for our residents. I think it will draw tourists from all over the world."

Suddenly, the Arkansas Delta was on the map in a nation that has a passion for bicycling, walking and other forms of outdoor recreation.

The St. Francis Levee District, which manages levees from Mississippi County in the north to Lee County in the south, approved the development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the Harahan Bridge's western terminus in West Memphis to Marianna. Before that, some were calling the Big River Crossing the "bridge to nowhere." When the agreement was signed with the levee district, Terry Eastin, the director of the Big River Strategic Initiative, said: "The bridge to nowhere is now the bridge to everywhere."

Charlie McVean of Memphis, founder of McVean Trading & Investments, drove the development of the Big River Crossing. He had begun manufacturing hybrid bicycles in 2009 and soon realized that the area had little infrastructure for cyclists. Steve Higginbothom of Marianna was the driving force in getting the 73 miles of levee from West Memphis to Marianna open.

Once cyclists reach Marianna, they can take Arkansas 44 to St. Francis National Forest. where additional paving of roads has been done. Cyclists exit the national forest at Helena and can then ride a few miles out U.S. 49 in order to connect with Delta Heritage Trail.

In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story on a bicycle trip from Memphis to Marianna, Bob Robinson wrote: "The Memphis bridge conversion developed scope-creep when McVean began to consider where people would ride once they crossed the river and reached the Arkansas shore. Not wanting it to be known as the bridge to nowhere, he gave this issue much consideration before arriving at the obvious solution: Create the Big River Trail, a bicycle or walking path on top of the Mississippi River levee, which stands just a short distance from the west access for the bridge and extends all the way to Marianna. Obtaining permission to allow bicycle and pedestrians on top of the levee was no easy task. Sections of the levee in the St. Francis Levee District had not been open to public use since 1893."

The levee district later had to fight lawsuits and disgruntled landowners who blocked the route at points with steel posts and wire. The levee district used a $100,000 state grant to install 49 special gates that could be aligned with cattle gates atop the levee. They're just wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians to pass through.

As my cycling friends like to say, mountain biking and road cycling are the new golf--activities that people are willing to spend a large amount of money on and travel to pursue.

Consider what Alabama--specifically the Retirement Systems of Alabama--did in creating the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of world-class golf courses, many of which have adjacent resort hotels. That effort put Alabama on the tourism map for thousands of wealthy Americans who never would have considered visiting the state otherwise. Arkansas wants to do that in the area of cycling.

Several years ago, the state entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to develop Mississippi River State Park in St. Francis National Forest. A visitors' center staffed by federal and state employees was constructed with interactive exhibits on the Mississippi River, Crowley's Ridge and the Delta.

A campground, day-use area and nature trail were developed at nearby Bear Creek Lake. The St. Francis is the only national forest that touches the Mississippi River, and development of this park guarantees a nice middle section of the route from Memphis to Arkansas City.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 02/16/2020

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