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Who will save Arkansas' historic landmarks if her own people won't? That's the question raised by the historic bridge at Clarendon, and the answer is still in doubt. That's because this case pits the sovereign immunity of the state against the passions and prejudices of all those contending over its ultimate fate. Will the bridge come crashing down by order of the state's planners or somehow be saved?

"In my point of view," the Hon. Chris Piazza has ruled, demolishing the 87-year-old structure would be "a waste of a good asset but I don't get to vote. This ... is out of my hands. I think sovereign immunity takes us out of this." The judge is doing what a judge should do--following the law rather than his personal inclinations.

The historic bridge over the White River at Clarendon was built in 1931 in order to replace the ferry that carried vehicles across the depths of the river. The original steel span routed traffic through town; its much safer successor redirects traffic on U.S. 79 around Clarendon.

Both bridges are located in wildlife sanctuaries maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would like to return the whole area to nature. The state's position is that those challenging the old bridge's demolition plan have waited entirely too long--some 18 years--to do so. By now, the bridge is as much a part of the scenery as the marsh.

The feds, according to their lawyers, had agreed to pay for the new bridge so long as the site was allowed to become a wetlands once again. The deadline for accepting that deal has passed. That's according to Stacy Hurst, who heads this state's Department of Heritage and who has been trying to broker a settlement with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. So says John Gill, a lawyer from Little Rock who's been doing his best to save the bridge. But his best may not prove good enough.

Counselor Gill claims the deal was "sabotaged" and talks about an "obstruction of justice" having been committed. Only a full trial, says the counselor, could get to the bottom of the whole affair. He wasn't pointing a finger at anybody, but pointed out that it was the feds who backed out of the negotiations.

A deputy attorney general for the state, Monty Baugh, said he was standing by everything he'd said about these plaintiffs' case and the trouble with it. He told the presiding judge in this tangled lawsuit that those trying to save the bridge were the ones who had broken their promises to drop all this litigation if they couldn't find a way to save the bridge. And clearly they hadn't.

The bridge at Clarendon would make a fine place to do some bird-watching or observe the site's wildlife in general. Which is why a group styling itself Friends of the Historic White River Bridge at Clarendon were working to convert it into part of a series of hiking and biking trails around the city. But will Clarendon's bridge come tumbling down? It would certainly be a fiscally sound move to save it instead of spending the estimated $11.3 million it would take to destroy it.

For now the bridge still stands, according to its friends and fans, as "a symbol of American strength, craftsmanship and freedom of expression. It is 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."

Too many of us value this state's and this country's architectural heritage too little. But don't give up hope so long as a single girder still stands.

Paul Greenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 07/29/2018

Print Headline: Going, going, almost gone

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  • rgrippo
    July 29, 2018 at 11:08 a.m.

    I am 100% in agreement with this editorial. There are many reasons to keep the Clarendon bridge standing and put it to a higher and better use. The single reason to tear it down, that this is the plan for it by the state, does not hold much water. The state and the feds need to do what’s right, not just blindly follow some decision made without regard for historical, recreational, and economical benefits. I am all for preserving wetlands. But, tearing this bridge down it’s going to negatively impact the wetlands much more than leaving it standing. This whole “controversy“ makes me wonder who’s pocket will be filled by execution of the tear-down contract.