Editor’s Note: David Trulock, who serves on the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission, originally wrote this piece as a series for the Jefferson County Historical Quarterly.

Editor’s Note: David Trulock, who serves on the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission, originally wrote this piece as a series for the Jefferson County Historical Quarterly.


One hundred and one years ago, a "free bridge" across the Arkansas River had been completed six miles upriver from Pine Bluff. Like similar bridges at Little Rock and Fort Smith, it was called "free" because it wasn’t a toll bridge. Property owners in Jefferson County were assessed a tax in order to pay for the Free Bridge.


The cost of the bridge was $650,000, equivalent to $15.2 million today. The Corps of Engineers inspector who approved the structural integrity of the bridge in early April 1915, an army major named Alfred B. Putnam, deemed it to be one of the finest in the country and "certainly the best that spans the Arkansas River."


For comparison, the wagon and automobile bridges over the river within the state at the time were in Fort Smith and Little Rock. One of these, the Baring Cross railroad bridge, built in 1873, had been modified by 1915 to carry autos and wagons in addition to rail traffic. There were, of course, also railroad-only bridges at Little Rock and Fort Smith and at other locations along the Arkansas River, including the Rob Roy bridge in Jefferson County, built in 1883.


One reason for the Free Bridge to be a better bridge than any of these was that it had been designed from the beginning to carry rail traffic, plus automobile and wagon traffic on the cantilevered "driveways"along its sides. There also was a bridge of this same design being built over the Mississippi River, connecting Memphis and West Memphis. The Harahan Bridge, as it came to be called, opened for rail traffic in 1916 and for wagon and auto traffic in 1917.


These types of bridges were usually planned and built by railroad companies, using whatever local financial help they could find for building the driveways (also called wagonways) along the sides. The Free Bridge, however, was not associated with a rail line and, as things turned out, was never used to carry rail traffic, although a north-south rail line had been planned by various Pine Bluff investors. Such a rail line was meant to compete with the established east-west routes of the Cotton Belt and Missouri Pacific. None of these plans to use the Free Bridge rails reached fruition, and they were removed in 1926.


The tracks were helpful in one way, however. Cass Ussery, the longtime caretaker of the Free Bridge and operator of its lift span, used a handcar on the tracks from 1915 to 1926 in order to quickly get from one end of the bridge to the other. There was also some serendipity associated with the middle section of the bridge even after the tracks were removed. Farm equipment, which got bigger as time passed, was able to use the center section of the bridge, as could wider-than-normal loads carried by large trucks.


Unlike the bridges for automobiles and wagons at Fort Smith and Little Rock, the Pine Bluff bridge wound up not being in the city or even on the edge of the city. Building a bridge to replace the ferry from the northern edge of downtown to Boyd Point was what most people expected would be done, but engineers who scouted locations for a bridge wisely cautioned that the Arkansas River’s extraordinary loop southward at Pine Bluff made the future location of the river here uncertain. Thus a straighter portion of the river six miles north of the city was chosen for the bridge.


Although a lot of thought was given to the location of the bridge, not much planning was done in regard to connecting roads — at least not until the bridge had already been built. The ferry from the city’s downtown area to Boyd Point was still in use after the Free Bridge opened, and there was apparently little pressure to get roads built on either end of the bridge.


It wasn’t until August 1915 that a petition to build a macadam road to the bridge was signed by a majority of landowners along the route and was filed with the county court. This was the first step in forming a Road Improvement District. The petition called for construction of a 4.5-mile-long macadam road to the bridge, starting from the intersection of Cedar (now University Drive) and Saracen streets.


This location was coincidentally only a few hundred yards east of the southern end of the recently completed Dollarway Road at Pullen Street near the entrance to Bellwood Cemetery. The Dollarway was itself a historically significant Pine Bluff and Jefferson County project, said to be the longest continuous length of paved concrete in the nation (23 miles long) when it was built in 1913-14.


Because of numerous floods, the Arkansas River did indeed change its course at Pine Bluff over the years. This unpredictable behavior stopped during the construction of the McClellan-Kerr navigation system during the 1960s, when the formerly notorious Boyd Point Cut-off was dredged to create a new river channel. This was where a Corps of Engineers levee was illegally dynamited during the 1908 flood to prevent the raging river from sweeping away the Jefferson County Courthouse (it did wash away other downtown buildings). Ironically, this flow problem was created when the citizenry of Pine Bluff had years earlier requested the levee be built to keep the river channel and its steamboat traffic adjacent to the city. When the Corps refused the city’s emergency request in 1908 to remove the levee, some citizens — to this day not publicly named — took matters into their own hands.


When Boyd Point Cut-off was dredged in 1965, the former river channel — which by then had receded several miles northeast of the city — was closed off, creating the Port of Pine Bluff and Lake Langhoffer. Although late 19th Century and early 20th Century residents could not have imagined Pine Bluff existing without a steamboat landing at the foot of the downtown business district, changing the course of the river turned out to be a good thing for the city.


Epilogue


Major Alfred Burpee Putnam, the inspector of the Free Bridge, died of malaria on June 8, 1915, in Little Rock, a little over two months after he inspected the bridge. He was 37 years old and had a wife and 15-year-old son who survived him.


Little Rock’s original Baring Cross Bridge, along with its added-on auto and wagon "highway," was destroyed by the flood of 1927. A new railroad-only Baring Cross Bridge was built by Missouri Pacific in 1929. The lift span of this bridge had to be modified in 1967 to suit the requirements of the McClellan-Kerr navigation project. Those same requirements plus increased highway traffic on the Free Bridge led to its replacement by a new bridge in 1972. However, the Free Bridge —vindicating Major Putnam’s judgment — not only survived the flood of 1927 but also provided a safe haven for many flood refugees.


The Harahan Bridge is still in use as a railroad bridge. A project to convert the old wagonways along its sides into bicycle and pedestrian usage, connecting Main Street in Memphis with Broadway in West Memphis, is scheduled to be completed this year.