Saying his hands are tied, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Wednesday dissolved his court order blocking construction crews from demolishing the historic White River bridge in Clarendon.
People who united to try and save it through a lawsuit called the span “a symbol of American strength, craftsmanship and freedom of expression" and an "engineering marvel and a core part of Arkansas history that … [sits] near the original road from Memphis to Little Rock [and] on the route of the historic Trail of Tears.”
Supporters further warned that losing the bridge — with its potential to attract tourism revenue to Monroe County — would be the death blow for the White River city at the mouth of the Cache River.
The bridge, built in 1931 to replace a ferry, ran right through Clarendon, a 159-year-old town of about 2,000. The new bridge is also in the wildlife sanctuaries but it now diverts drivers past the Monroe County seat.
Wednesday was the deadline Piazza set for bridge supporters to work out a way to save it. He had blocked demolition in March.
Federal authorities are going to tear down the 87-year-old bridge, so the area will revert to its natural state in the wildlife sanctuaries on the White and Cache rivers, which are run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A plan to hold talks between state and federal authorities on possibly saving the bridge suddenly collapsed this week, plaintiff attorney John Gill told the judge.
Tearing down the structure, which Clarendon had hoped to turn into a bird-watching platform as part of a bigger renovation effort to attract tourism, seems like a waste of resources, but it’s not his decision to make, Piazza said. But sovereign immunity — which makes Arkansas practically lawsuit-proof — must prevail, the judge said.
Razing the bridge is the final part of an 18-year process replace to the span on U.S. 79 with a safer structure and to have the original site return to nature, lawyers for the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Arkansas Department of Transportation told the judge. They said the bridge fans have had at least nine years to get ready for demolition but instead waited until the last moment to intervene.
Read Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.