Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pacing the bridge.

Back in my TV days, there was rarely a notice of any sort of week gone by where we didn’t hear something along the lines of “yep, barge hit the Highway 82 bridge at Greenville again.” Usually this was followed by the line “and the barge sank.” Sometimes we heard “the bridge has been temporarily closed for inspection.” And it would close, but never for long.

The Greenville crossing’s very important to commercial travel. It’s a quicker route across the river for travelers and trucks heading down Highway 65 from Little Rock into points south and east (especially to Jackson or New Orleans).

But damn that bridge has been scary. I’ve had my share of times going over it, sometimes during the day but usually in the late evening or at night. The idea of being far above the Mississippi for that long is scary enough -- but when it’s dark and you’re meeting an 18-wheeler going the other way, you count your blessings on your fingers and toes and grip the steering wheel, praying for a quick end to the madness. The end always came, of course, after crossing the long approach on the other side.

Only once did I have to start backing up on that bridge, and thank heavens it was full daylight. Must have been spring of 2006. I was heading south with the hubster, and we were up the Lake Village approach already and about to get honestly out over the river. That’s when we saw a flash. The car in front of us stopped, right there, and those reverse lights came on. We managed to get stopped before he could reach us, and he started blowing his horn. The flash went right past us -- a pickup with a WIDE LOAD sign on it. I looked in the rearview, saw no one coming, and eased the Durango I was driving into reverse.

There it was, coming around the bend in the approach, a foolhardy truck driver hauling half a mobile home. What the hell? The guy in front of me was honking, and I had to go back. There was no choice.

My husband was cussing a blue streak. He turned around and attempted to guide me back right. I was doing okay with my rear view and side mirrors for some time, but once we hit the approach I turned the wheel and got us perpendicular to the road. The little car that had been in front of us sped by in reverse continuing down the ramp. I remember making the rest of that three point turn with inches to spare, then hearing the horn of the oncoming truck, as if we’d been in the wrong for attempting the crossing.

After that, we headed back down into Lake Village and found the Pizza Hut and sat there quivering over iced tea and pasta for a little while before heading south on Highway 65 instead.

There’s no doubt a new bridge was needed -- the old one had a width of just 24 feet, no shoulders, nowhere to go if anything crazy happened. Just two lanes of traffic -- one in each direction -- carrying a national highway over one of the fattest stretches of the Mississippi River. Nothing else between Natchez and Helena. I was thrilled when I heard about a new bridge being built, and over the past few years passing through I watched as bits of it got built here and there. In fact, the last time I made the crossing was in March of 2008 on my way back from New Orleans. At that point you could tell there was a bridge deck and most of the overhead cable work had already been done.

I’ve tended to just head south on 65 to Tallulah my few trips that way since then, opting to catch stories at Transylvania and Lake Providence and such and head through Vicksburg on my way through to Jackson rather than the Greenville-Indianola route. But word that the new bridge had just opened drew me that way this past weekend, and it’s part of the reason Grav and I made the journey south when we did. We both knew it might be our last chance to see the old bridge while it was still standing. And we’re both curious people.

So on that hot Friday afternoon, with me full of tamales and Grav looking for a bite, we set off for Greenville. We had ulterior motives -- I recalled a root beer joint across the way and it sounded like a good place to pop in and let him fill his tank while I enjoyed a frosted mug.

The approach was quite different -- rather than the long standing S curve that headed to the more northerly approach of the old bridge, the roadbed rolled smoothly straight ahead to the elevated section that started climbing at The Cowpen. The big white stretch lay ahead of us, startlingly bright in the mid-afternoon sun, the cables overhead forming shadows that didn’t quite darken any bit of the way. It was a smooth ride, lofty and high.

The disappointment for us was this tall barrier in the center of the road, which wouldn’t allow for us in a car to be able to see over it. This wasn’t going to do.

We spent a short time in Greenville, completely missing the root beer stand and tolerating a less than excellent Chinese buffet before heading back, spotting said root beer stand (which had no sign) and briefly stopping to shoot an old overgrown junior high football field. Then it was back on the road and down to the river.

Being on the Mississippi side, though, we were hoping to get some sort of final view of the old bridge. We took the “exit” next to the casino and drove the old road out as far as we could go before arriving at series of “Road Closed signs.” The first was set just on the left side of the road, so we approached further. We actually made it up to the gate at the westbound approach before we stopped.

There was a small black car that had followed us up to the point. The “Road Closed” sign was once again on the left hand side and the gate was open. We deliberated driving on, but knowing the bridge was set for dismantlement shuddered at the thought of discovering holes where the roadbed had been taken out. We thought about parking and walking it on foot; but the knowledge that the full bridge was over ten thousand feet from end to end and that the temperature had already surpassed 100 degrees cut that out. In the end, we made a three point turn and briefly stopped a distance away to see what the other driver was going to do.

We watched as he paused at the gate, nosing through a bit. And then he too turned around to head out.

Well, that was that. No one was going to be crazy enough to get back up on the old bridge. And probably for good reason. I mean, the old bridge had just been closed a few days (this being August 6th, and the new bridge having opened on the 4th) and it might have been okay, but there was just a little too much danger for our nerves there.

We headed back to the highway and turned right to head back into Arkansas on the new bridge. We’d made it almost to the point of the first cable stays when Grav asked me to stop. I threw on the hazards, rolled onto the nicely wide shoulder and he still had room to open his door fully. He got out, made a few motions indicating he would be a moment, and started to shoot.

The old bridge is still sitting there, dark against the horizon to the north, overshadowed in spirit and soon to be nothing but a ghost. Rather than imploding the bridge, it’s going to be disassembled bit by bit. This one last romantic glance back was an afternoon’s lazy goodbye.

Once on the other side, we did look for easy access to the riverside so we could take a few more shots, but after a while we gave up.

The next day we went out to Lakeport Plantation and spent four hours learning all about the restored 1859 home, the only remaining Antebellum home still standing along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and the northernmost of the surviving river plantation homes. It’s being restored by Arkansas State University and a crack team of researchers, restoration experts and archaeologists (be sure to read more here at Tie Dye Travels).

While we were there, we were told about Mount Holly, a deserted plantation not too far south of Greenville between the river and Highway 1, and we decided the afternoon wouldn’t be complete without a visit (this killed our opportunity to visit the Crossland Zoo in Crossett, but that’ll be something for another time).

We were headed out from the plantation when Grav asked me to stop. He caught the bridge towering over the plantation in this magical shot. Hard to imagine that it’s more than half a mile away.

And then we were off the county roads and onto 82 and crossing again. And it was such a pretty day, that once more we stopped on the bridge. This time, Grav was looking to shoot the new kid in town. He made me nervous playing in traffic, running across to the median to capture shots there of the magnificent cables above.

This bridge is something else. It’s the longest cable-stayed bridge span along the Mississippi and the fourth longest in North America. There’s all sorts of great details about it on the great website for the bridge. I encourage you to check it out.

And then we were done, and Grav got back in the car for our trip to find Mount Holly Plantation. Which we did. It was about three when we crossed the bridge the final time on the trip, headed for our next stop of interest in El Dorado. The new bridge gleamed brightly, and I looked out one more time to see the dark spectre that for the slightest time remains the old bridge. It’s been here since 1940. It won’t be here next time I come through.

Note: The photos of the bridge at the beginning of the piece were taken by my friend David Backlin, who has been hunting bridges and tracking down old highways for years. Check out more of his fabulous shots of the old and new Greenville bridges at his website, The Road Less Taken.

You can learn more about the history of the old Greenville bridge and the construction of the new one at this MDOT website.

And to really appreciate Grav's magnificent panorama shot of the old Greenville bridge with the barge below, please click here. It deserves to be seen in better scale.


  1. I love this article!!! I went to Lake Village and Greenville in the spring, I am so glad the new bridge is open....cannot wait for my first trip across!!!

  2. Hi,

    Nice post........ great site! Thanks for sharing this!

    James Parker….
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