Clarendon Bridge in Monroe County, Arkansas

Side view of the Clarendon Bridge. Photos taken by John Moore IV, used with permission

Sister Bridges. They may look alike in structural appearance. They may be built at the same time. They may have been built by the same bridge builder. The difference though is where they are located, how each of the structures are maintained and how they are honored and appreciated by locals and passers-by. There are many sister bridges that exist in the US, Europe and other places. One of the most common sister bridges can be found in Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, where three self-anchored eyebar suspension bridges spanning the Allegheny River are located. All three yellow-colored crossings were built by the same bridge builder (American Bridge Company) at the same time (between 1926 and 1928), and each one was named in honor of the prominent people originating from Pittsburgh: Roberto Clemente, Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol.

In Arkansas, there are sister bridges as well- in the form of Warren cantilever through truss bridges. Located over the White River, the bridges at Augusta, Newport and Clarendon were built in 1930-1 by Ira G. Hedrick, a prominent bridge builder for the state. To build these gigantic structures, Hedrick worked together with six different bridge companies from five states, including Texas, Missouri, Virginia and Kansas.  Each of the bridges had a center span of 400 feet but a total length of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet.

All three sisters are facing demolition. Already gone is the Augusta Bridge through replacement in 2001, replacement and imminent demolition are in the works for the Newport and Clarendon Bridges. However, private groups are working together with the state and local governments to ensure that when their replacement bridges open to traffic, their prized works by Ira Hedrick are saved and reused for recreational purposes.

The Clarendon Bridge is the longest of the sister bridges. Spanning the White River at Clarendon, the bridge was designed by Hedrick and built by three bridge companies in 1931. It carries US Hwy. 79 and has a total length of 4,200 feet, counting its concrete approach spans that glide into Clarendon. At the moment, a replacement bridge is being constructed down stream, and plans are in the making to demolish the historic bridge by the end of 2015, after the new bridge is built. Yet a local group is trying to purchase the bridge for reuse, integrating the crossing into the nationwide bike trail network, while at the same time, bring the history of the bridge and its surrounding area- the White River Delta- to life.

Approach span to the east, spanning the Bayou. Photo taken by John Moore IV

The Chronicles had an opportunity to interview John Moore IV, who is one of the organizers of the Save the Big White River Bridge group. The author wanted to know how significant the bridge is and what they are trying to do to save the bridge from its untimely end. Here are the answers to the questions provided below:

1. What is so special about the Clarendon Bridge? How is the bridge tied in with the community in terms of history and significance?

The Big White River Bridge in Clarendon, Arkansas isn’t just a bridge spanning a body of water. As it twists and turns two and a quarter miles through the upper boughs of the river bottom hardwoods it’s not just a bridge going through the woods. This bridge is a symbol. Before it’s 1931 construction the folks of Monroe County relied only on a ferry to cross the river, which left the miles of untamed, flood ridden river bottoms to cross on foot and hoof. The Big White River Bridge became a road of progress. What was once a sleepy little town, stuck somewhere in the late 1800s was suddenly projected into the 20th Century. Highway 79 became one of America’s premier roads across the country. The day the bridge was opened there was two-day celebration including a circus, parachute jumper, high divers, boat races, pageant, and parade. The Big White River Bridge is near and dear the heart of Monroe County.

2. The Clarendon Bridge is one of the sister bridges over the White River. Can you tell us more about it?

The Big White River Bridge was built as one of a set of three double-cantilever bridges in Arkansas. These bridges were built in Clarendon, Newport, and Augusta. After the 2001 demolition of the Augusta bridge, only the Clarendon and Newport bridges remain. Both Clarendon and Newport are working to save their respective bridges since being scheduled for replacement.

3. What is the current situation with the bridge? Is construction of its replacement underway?

The current situation for the bridge is that it is scheduled to be demolished in mid to late 2015. The replacement bridge is currently being built and will be open for traffic around May of 2015.

4.  According to a recent posting in bridgehunter.com, the city of Clarendon was not willing to take ownership of the bridge. Does this hold true still? If so, what attempts are being made to either convince the city to reconsider or have another party take ownership?

            The City of Clarendon is willing to take the bridge only in a responsible manner. We are pursuing different means of long-term upkeep, but none of this can be set in stone until the powers that be approve the bridge to still stand.

5. What plans do you have for the bridge? Will there be some restoration work in store and if so, how?

If all goes well, we plan to keep the entire two and a quarter miles of the bridge to use as a cycling and pedestrian bridge. The national cycling group, Adventure Cycling Association, wants to designate the bridge as part of a national cycling interstate as U.S. Bike Route 80. The bridge will serve as an integral part of the system by being a safe route across the largest contiguous bottomland hardwood forest in North America.

6. Have you done some fundraising for the bridge? What other support are you receiving for the project?

We have not done any fundraising so far as the bridge has not yet been approved to remain standing. We have, however, garnered an incredible amount of support from individuals across the nation and the State of Arkansas. Our Congressional and Senate offices are in full support. Virtually every cycling group in the state has given us their approval. The U.S. Coast Guard, Arkansas Water Ways Commission and the National Register of Historic Places all have given support and/or approval. The Harahan Bridge project in Memphis has also given us their best whishes.

7. It is mentioned in the website that a historic bridge will provide some revenue for tourism. How do you want to make the bridge attractive for the tourists?

As mentioned earlier, if the bridge is saved, it will become part of U.S. Bike Route 80. It will also serve as a cycling route from Memphis to Little Rock. The Harahan Bridge project is creating a cycling and pedestrian bridge crossing the Mississippi River at Memphis. Going through Clarendon would serve as a no-brainer route for crossing the central part of the state on a bike. Also the natural landscape and the extraordinary nature of the bridge is a testament unto itself. There are few bridges of this mass that run through a forest of this size.

8. Based on your experience so far, what advice would you give to a group or organization working to save a historic bridge?

First of all one should start early. One shouldn’t try to save a bridge once the decision has been made to tear it down, but when the talk of replacement begins. Secondly, the most important part of gaining traction when trying to save something so momentous as a bridge is building relationships. Saving a bridge is not just a matter of one person’s hard work. It’s a matter of motivating hundreds of people to get behind your cause and say, “Yes. We must save this bridge.” If you do begin the preservation process late in the game, much like we have done, the hill becomes a steeper climb, but as we have learned, it may not yet be too late. It is not just about cutting ones way through red tape but finding the right people who know the right people and building trust and relationship.

9. How would you handle the issue of liability for the bridge?

To prevent liability lawsuits we will use appropriate signs and guardrails. Also while a municipality can be sued, those running the municipality cannot be personally sued for their roles in the government. There is the possibility of a lawsuit in nearly any venture that one may propose, but that should not fetter progress.

If you want to know more about the bridge, or are willing to help in the preservation efforts, please click on the link with the contact details, and write to the organization. Every little support and effort will count a long way towards saving the Clarendon Bridge, one of the two remaining sister bridges over the White River and one of the last remaining works of Ira Hendrick.

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One Response to Clarendon Bridge in Monroe County, Arkansas

  1. Lance Hopper says:

    Please save the big white river bridge in Clarendon Ar.
    It’s a pretty history bridge and make a walking biking trail so many people love the history monument and courthouse. People have the right to stand up and save the big white river bridge in Clarendon Ar. John Moore thanks you so much for trying to save the big white river bridge in Clarendon Ar. May God Bless You .

    Lance E. Hopper.

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