Opinion

Tom Dillard: Centuries of monumental bridge-building helped build Arkansas

Arkansas' numerous rivers and streams are among the great assets of the state today, but for much of our history those same waterways were as much hindrance as help. The lack of roads meant that rivers took on much of the responsibility for transportation, but they were great challenges to people traveling overland. Bridges, therefore, were among the most pressing infrastructure needs of 19th-century Arkansas.

Early arrivals in Arkansas had to ford the waterways, which meant searching for a shallow place and taking wagons and teams through the water. The building of military roads during the territorial period resulted in the construction of several bridges. In August 1827, the U.S. Army signed a contract for opening the first 10 miles of a road from modern West Memphis to Little Rock.

Among the provisions of the contract were specifications for building wooden bridges in locations where fords were not available. By today's standards these early bridges were crude, but they involved huge effort. The contractor was required to cut the trees locally -- white oaks were preferred -- hew them into specific dimensions, and build a bridge.

Stones were not available locally, so the bridges were built on wooden trestles sunk into the alluvial mud. Logs for the trestles, which were required every 14 feet, were "squared and hewed" and no smaller than 12-by-12 inches. The bridge supports were to be held in place with "mortices and tenons with two stout pins in each tenon." The flooring was to consist of "sawed plank not less than three inches in thickness."

While the bridges were supposed to be "... so high above the water that no part thereof shall ever be exposed to injury from the highest freshets," these early bridges were often destroyed during almost-yearly flooding.

Many of the early bridges in Arkansas were built by individuals who were authorized by county governments to charge a toll. At the first meeting of the Legislature after Arkansas became a state, a law was enacted authorizing county governments to grant franchises to individuals to build toll bridges.

Robert W. Scoggin, in his excellent entry on bridges in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, wrote that "at least 23 toll bridge franchises were granted on military and post roads by the state legislature from 1824 to 1868." Not all these bridges were actually built.

In 1837 the Legislature passed a bill authorizing counties to grant franchises to build toll bridges "... over any bayou, creek, lake, river or swamp ..."

Several corporations were granted franchises, including the Van Buren Bridge Co., the Belle Point Bridge and Ferry Co., Pulaski County Bridge Co., and the Little Rock Bridge Co. However, the only one of these to actually construct a bridge was the Little Rock company, which erected "the Washita bridge" over the Ouachita River at Rockport.

The structure at Rockport, built in 1846, was a covered bridge, one of the four known examples in the state. The newspapers reported frequently on its construction; the Arkansas Gazette found the bridge "nearly complete" and "highly creditable to its builder, and will turn out, contrary to the expectations of many, a source of large profit to its stockholders."

Sadly, the Ouachita bridge made no money for its stockholders, as it was washed away in a flood after less than a year in operation.

Some local counties funded bridges directly. In 1850 Hempstead County advertised for sealed bids on constructing a 60-foot bridge over Bois d'Arc Creek. In 1872 Prairie County spent the large sum of $8,000 on new bridges across the Wattensaw, Big Creek and Bayou Des Arc. Most likely, the counties paid for bridges using county script -- often greatly discounted when spent.

Act 126 of 1875 brought some coordination of bridge building by turning it over to the counties, defining three classes of bridges, and bidding was required. Soon, counties began purchasing bridges from national companies, and thus iron bridges made their debut.

Bryan McDade, who did a thesis on the six bridges built across the Arkansas at Little Rock, concluded: "These bridges have helped to make the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock what they are today."

The first bridge erected at Little Rock was Baring Cross Bridge, built in 1873 by the Cairo & Fulton Railroad with partial funding from Baring Bank in London. The others are Junction Bridge, Rock Island Bridge, Broadway Bridge, Main Street Bridge and the I-30 bridge.

The 978-foot Baring Cross Bridge included a draw span to accommodate river traffic. In 1877 a highway deck was added on top, allowing the company to charge tolls for wagons (25 cents for a team of six animals), individuals and livestock. In 1885, the bridge was rebuilt, with the highway deck lowered to track level. Electric lights were installed, probably a first for Arkansas.

Baring Cross Bridge served Little Rock well until the great flood of 1927. As the waters rose, the railroad parked cars filled with coal to provide ballast, but efforts were futile, and in the early morning of April 21, 1927, two spans collapsed, taking 16 cars loaded with coal with them.

Bob Scoggin has noted that three 19th-century bridges survive, the oldest being the Springfield-Des Arc Bridge built over Cadron Creek on the Faulkner-Conway county line in 1874. The bridge was in use until 1991, but in recent years it was relocated to span a cove in Lake Beaverfork Park near Conway.

Clarifications

In last week's column on Yell County I mistakenly wrote that Sgt. William Ellis, a member of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry, received a Medal of Honor for gallantry at the skirmish at Ivey's Ford upriver from Dardanelle on Jan. 14, 1865. Actually, he received the medal for fighting at Dardanelle on that date.

Also, in the same column I failed to include the Gleason family in a brief list of prominent natives of Yell County. George Gleason, the founder of Bank OZK, is from Dardanelle, as are his three accomplished sisters. One of those sisters, historian Diane Gleason, recently published an outstanding book on Dardanelle and the nearby Cardin bottoms (UA Press, 2017).

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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