Though the bridge opened a decade ago in 2010, folks in southeast Arkansas still refer to it as the "new Greenville bridge."
We're crossing into Arkansas, beginning a trip that will take us through the lower part of the state from Mississippi to Texas on U.S. 82. After a night in Greenville, Miss., it's time to head west while traversing one of the most beautiful bridges in this part of the country.
The old bridge, which was demolished, opened to traffic in 1940. Dr. Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002: "The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me. I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver's license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing on an aircraft carrier at night."
In 1951, a jet from Greenville Air Force Base struck the old bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic by the next day.
Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was booming in the 1930s. Cotton was king, and Greenville is where area planters went to do business and have fun. Mayor Milton C. Smith knew, however, that there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry if the good times were to continue. He joined forces with John Fox, secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The two men spent weeks at a time in Washington. D.C., during the 1930s, lobbying for federal funding. Smith's barrel hoop business went bankrupt due to his continued absences.
Eventually, Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas introduced a bill to get things moving. Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas had earlier joined forces with Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi to promote the bridge on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey was another key ally. Fox met with civic leaders from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what a bridge could mean for the South. He urged people across the region to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A consultant from Kansas City determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville ferry, wouldn't be a suitable place for a bridge. The recommendation was to build the bridge below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. That location meant long and expensive approaches would have to be built. The estimated cost was $4.25 million.
In September 1938, the Greenville mayor and his city attorney S.B. Thomas went to Washington to seek money from the federal Works Progress Administration. They made the case that construction of a bridge would create jobs for hundreds of men who otherwise would be unemployed. On Sept. 21, 1938, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that "we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge."
The Delta Democrat Times at Greenville reported: "And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal."
The bridge opened for traffic on Oct. 2, 1940. It was named for former Congressman Benjamin Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, which established a national flood-control program along the Mississippi River. The Delta Democrat Times said of the bridge: "It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete, which links two sides on the great river he loved, should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps."
At the time the bridge opened, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River. Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later.
The current bridge cost $100 million. The four-lane, cable-stayed structure has become an architectural landmark in this area. The approach on the Arkansas side--over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain--cost an additional $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side--over the east levee and floodplain--cost another $86 million.
Continuing toward Lake Village, we drive along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake runs for almost 22 miles and covers 5,000 acres. Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight over the lake in 1923.
"Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a short pathway to the east," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. "The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake. After his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning 'stump,' in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the lakeshore.
"White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton. Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake."
We head west out of Lake Village on U.S. 82 and cross the Boeuf River, which is little more than a drainage ditch in this part of Arkansas. The river, located between Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew, flows for almost 220 miles before entering the Ouachita River in Catahoula Parish in Louisiana. We're still in the Delta as we cross into Ashley County and find ourselves at Montrose. Cotton once dominated the economy here. Now the cotton crop must share space on the area's giant farming operations with rice, soybeans, corn and winter wheat.
Ashley County was carved out of parts of Union, Drew and Chicot counties in 1848. It became the state's 53rd county and was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan in the U.S. Senate. In addition to Montrose, the communities of Parkdale, Portland and Wilmot also thrived in this part of the county when cotton prices were good and the bottomland hardwoods were being cut.
Before reaching Hamburg, we leave the Delta and enter the Gulf Coastal Plain. They grow pine trees here rather than row crops.
Hamburg was laid out in October 1849. The first courthouse and county jail were built in 1850 in an area at the center of the county that once was known as the Great Wilderness. Because it's near the county's geographic center, Hamburg in some ways is pulled in two economic directions.
David Moyers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Immediately east and west are prairie regions dedicated to the rice and soybean culture. A dozen miles east of Hamburg is the Delta, where cotton and soybeans dominate the economy. To the north and the south, the timber culture reigns. Many people in Hamburg work at the Georgia-Pacific mills in Crossett or in supporting industries. The city's economic base is thus divided among agriculture and forestry.
"Agriculture continued as the dominant force of the economy through the early 1900s, though lumber production became increasingly important in later years. After the Great Depression, the city underwent major social and economic shifts. Many small farmers gave up their attempts to subsist on their land and left the region or went to work in sawmills or paper mills. After World War II, continued pressures on small farmers led to increased consolidations of agricultural enterprises with the family farms replaced by larger, more efficient units."
As the Delta declined and stores there closed, residents from the eastern part of the county began coming to Hamburg to shop. The Hamburg School District increased in size as it consolidated with districts at Portland, Parkdale, Wilmot and Fountain Hill. Still, Hamburg's population fell from 3,394 in the 1980 census to 2,857 in the 2010 census. It's now estimated at less than 2,700.
Nearby Crossett, the place once known as the Forestry Capital of the South, was founded in the 1890s by three investors from Davenport, Iowa: Charles Warner Gates, John Wenzel Watzek, and Edward Savage Crossett. The Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899. Officials of the company formed relationships with those at Yale University's School of Forestry. This resulted in the end of the cut-and-leave practice of clearing forests in south Arkansas. The company soon was hiring Yale-trained foresters.
The company owned all the land and homes in town by the early 1900s. Those not wanting to live in company housing settled in communities known as North Crossett, South Crossett and West Crossett.
Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by Georgia-Pacific. The city has been hit hard in recent years by layoffs. In September 2011, Georgia-Pacific announced that it was suspending operations at a sawmill and plywood manufacturing facility and laying off 700 people. In June 2019, another 530 people were laid off. Despite the lost jobs, Georgia-Pacific remains a top employer in this part of south Arkansas.
Upon leaving the Forestry Capital of the South, we find ourselves in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers almost 65,000 acres in parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It was established in 1975 in a wild, remote part of the state where the Saline River meets the Ouachita River. There are oxbow lakes, bayous such as Caney Bayou and creeks such as Big Brushy Creek in the refuge. The Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River forms what's known as Lake Jack Lee.
The refuge is a prime spot to see migrating waterfowl, eagles and even the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Waterways are filled with alligators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates a visitors' center right along U.S. 82.
Five years after Felsenthal was established, Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect tracts of bottomland hardwoods in Ashley County. The refuge has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. In 1991, about 8,000 acres of farmland were added to the original 6,500 acres and planted in hardwoods. Overflow Creek, a tributary of the Bayou Bartholomew, runs through the refuge. Land on either side of the creek is covered with bottomland trees such as cypress, water tupelo, willow oak and overcup oak.
We cross the Ouachita River as we continue west. We've entered Union County, the state's largest in terms of square miles. Ninety percent of the county is forested.
The destination for the evening is El Dorado, a place once known as the Queen City of South Arkansas, much like Greenville--where the trip began--was the Queen City of the Delta. It later became known as Arkansas' Original Boomtown--a nod to the oil boom of the 1920s--and is now known for the Murphy Arts District.
The Murphy family and other El Dorado business and civic leaders are spending more than $100 million in an attempt to make the city a cultural attraction. The plan is not only to attract visitors but to make it easier for companies such as Murphy USA to attract talented young employees to live in El Dorado.
Next Sunday: El Dorado to Texarkana.