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Bridge center stage for Benton's bicentennialPublished June 19, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
BENTON Sometime in the spring of 1815, historians said, William Lockhart moved his family from North Carolina along the Southwest Trail to where it crosses the Saline River.
Lockhart’s was thought to be the first non-Native American settlement in what is now Saline County and was the only one in the area for several years. Lockhart operated a ferry near his home to help travelers on the trail cross the river.
By 1831, he was granted the rights to build and operate a toll bridge, and the area’s first post office was established at Saline Crossing, with Lockhart as postmaster.
A group of Saline County residents is planning for the site of the settlement to be the center of a bicentennial celebration for Benton and Saline County, and to serve as a step toward establishing a recreation area at the location of the crossing where the iron skeleton of a late-19th-century bridge stands.
“We want the 2015 celebration to stir up public interest in this location that is important to the history of the entire region but that has been isolated from the public for decades,” said Lynn Moore, head of Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreation Area Inc. “We want to preserve and promote [the area] and expose people to [what’s there] so they can help save the bridge and know the history of the community.”
The nonprofit organization, founded by Moore, a former mayor of Benton, will plan the bicentennial event in a series of meetings to which the public will be invited to join the organization and plan what members hope will be a “great celebration.”
A meeting for that purpose was held Tuesday evening at the Gene Ross Building at Tyndall Park on Benton.
Gathering at the old bridge last week, Moore and other members of the Saline Crossing organization said land on both sides of the Saline River was the beginning of American settlement of the area.
“This is where Benton began, this spot along the river. It was the birthplace for the whole area,”
Moore said. “This location was one day’s travel from Little Rock and was a day away from Hot Springs. Just think, until the freeway (Interstate 30) was built, everyone going to Texas from back east came across the river at this spot, much of [the traffic] over this bridge.”
While Saline Crossing was settled by Lockhart at a spot where the river was more easily forded, that is also the reason Saline Crossing didn’t last.
Moore has said the river often leaves its banks at that location. In 1833, just two years after Lockhart built his bridge, Benton was formed on higher ground and farther from the river. It is generally known where Lockhart located the settlement, but after two centuries of high water, no trace of buildings has ever been found by archaeologists.
During his visit to the bridge last week, Moore pointed out a piece of wood near the bank that was carried by high water and hung on wire atop a 7-foot fence.
The focal point of the recreational park Moore and the Saline Crossing group want is the old bridge.
What was known as the Iron Bridge, the Wagon Bridge or the River Street Bridge was built from a kit, ordered by the county in 1889 at a cost of $7,500. The bridge was completed in 1891 for horse and wagon traffic. However, Moore said that after the horse gave way to the automobile, traffic continued to use the old bridge.
“It was part of the community,” said Doyle Ritchie, a member of the Saline Crossing group, who said he was raised a few miles downriver from the bridge. “The coach at Benton High School used to make us run or jog down to the river. We would stop on the bridge, throw a few rocks into the river and then go back to school.”
The bridge was not designed with cars and trucks in mind, but even after the road to the bridge was officially closed, traffic still found its way to and over the bridge.
Vehicle traffic over the bridge stopped completely when a truck loaded with concrete tried to use the bridge as a short cut. The weight buckled one of the bridge’s support beams holding the wooden roadway, Moore said.
Even after the roadway accident, the abandoned bridge and the area around it were still an attraction.
“It was the main source of entertainment for young people in the area for decades,” said Linda Keaton, another member of the group that wants to establish a park in the area.
The bridge, with its forlorn appearance, was the setting of a scene in the movie Sling Blade, which established the career of Malvern actor Billy Bob Thornton.
No longer used, Moore said, the bridge attracted the wrong attention and suffered years of vandalism. The city closed River Street near both ends of the bridge almost 20 years ago.
Moore said that while he was mayor (1999-2002), a grant was provided for an engineering study of the bridge.
“We looked at restoring it for vehicle traffic,” he said, “but the engineers looked at what it would take to open it back up to vehicle traffic, and it was millions of dollars. We just want to preserve it and see if we can made it a bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Saline Crossing members said they would not try to paint the bridge, only try to seal the rusting iron of the bridge, leaving the deep red it has been for decades. The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The group has been given or purchased land on both sides of the river, and Moore said the group’s goal is to have a park on both sides, along with a picnic area, a swimming area and paddle boats. Moore said picnic tables have been purchased and will be placed on Benton’s River Street side of the crossing soon.
Assistance could come from the county, which still owns the bridge, and from other sources such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and grants for tourism, fishing and other development.
Moore said the site can be an attraction and an economic engine for the community, and the Saline Crossing group has plans to make the park a reality.
For more information about the bridge and the Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreation Area Inc., call Moore at (501) 778-8661.
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or email@example.com.