OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: Where city starts

I usually go for a long run on weekend mornings. I've found that running provides important connections to health and to place--it allows the opportunity to do something good for myself while also allowing me to see and feel the essence of an area.

For that reason, I usually take long runs in downtown Little Rock.

Like most cities, Little Rock's history starts in the heart of its downtown. There's no mystery to that. In college, I took a course on urban planning and remember the explanation of concentric zones mushrooming outwards from a city's center. In essence, there's the birth of a town, then growth moves from that spot.

Arguably, Little Rock's birthplace is the actual Petite Roche, noted by Jean Baptiste la Harpe in 1722 and from which surveys of the area grew. Or maybe it's the Old State House where Arkansas found its first foray into state governance and which still stands as the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Any number of other spots could hold the title as well.

For me, however, I believe a city's birthplace is not the umbilical spot, but where it opened arms to the wide world.

Last week, my downtown running group headed west from the Broadway Bridge. To the north, we saw a yellow engine and earth-toned train cars rumbling over the Baring Cross Bridge.

I remembered a bit of the bridge's history.

Prior to its construction in 1873, Little Rock residents had to rely on unsteady ferries to get across the river. Imagine loading yourself alongside a farmer's livestock onto a big boat you hoped would withstand the current and cargo load shifts as it forged a watery path north.

Finally, the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Company brought the idea of a railroad and pedestrian bridge to reality. As my group ran toward it, I remembered the story of the bridge's grand opening in 1873.

In dramatic fashion, the part of the span that swung wide to allow river traffic through slowly closed in front of a huge crowd. When that span locked in place, a woman suddenly sprinted across it, making her the first person to cross the bridge. No one knows who she was.

I also remembered that the 1927 flood forced the river to quickly rise within feet of the bridge's tracks. Word came down that other bridges had failed due to the rush of water, so engineers placed several train cars loaded with coal on the bridge to weigh it down and prevent its destruction. It didn't work. The middle section washed away.

That's about as far as memory could take me. When I returned home, I found a great video produced by the Department of Heritage featuring Michael Hibblen, who expertly filled in the details.

Later, I drove past the bridge and again watched a train crossing its span. I remembered that it's not where a city is born that matters, but where it decides to go.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "Oh, Little Rock" appears every other Monday.

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