West Memphis is one of those weird towns.
For one, it’s not even in Tennessee. West Memphis is in Crittenden County, Arkansas, perched directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis — home of the blues and the best pork barbecue known to mankind (sorry, Kansas City). It’s one of those minor cities — or major suburbs, depending on who you ask — located within the metropolitan area of a larger city that just happens to be located in an entirely different state. It’s the same deal with East St. Louis, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri; Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon; Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska; Florence, Kentucky, and Cincinnati.
Like Memphis and West Memphis, major rivers — the Columbia, the Ohio, the Missouri and, of course, the geographic anomaly-spawning Mississippi — divide these cities from their out-of-state suburbs. And it is iconic hardworking bridges — some well over a century old — that connect them.
There are four bridges that span a particularly muddy stretch of the Lower Mississippi to connect Tennessee with Arkansas; Memphis with West Memphis: the Interstate 40-carrying Hernando de Soto Bridge (1973), the Interstate 55-carrying Memphis-Arkansas Bridge (1949) and the Frisco Bridge, a historic cantilevered truss rail bridge that, upon its completion in 1892, was considered a marvel of 19th century engineering. At the time, it was the third longest bridge in the world and the most ambitious infrastructure project found anywhere on the Mississippi River.
Completed in 1916, Harahan Bridge was the second rail bridge to link Memphis with West Memphis, Arkansas, across the Mississippi. Cantilevered carriageways opened a year later. (Photo: Memphis Public Library and information Center)
And then there’s the Harahan Bridge, a cantilevered truss span just shy of 5,000 feet long that was completed in 1916 to take pressure off the train-congested Frisco Bridge, located just a couple of hundred feet to the north. Sporting not one but two rail lines, the Harahan Bridge also featured a rather novel-for-the-time addition — requested by overwhelming popular demand — that opened to the public in 1917: toll-free wooden plank carriageways that carried wagons and later automobiles across the Mississippi from the Volunteer State to the Natural State.
When the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge — a fancy “modern” bridge for automobiles only — opened in 1949, the Harahan Bridge’s aging and somewhat harrowing-sounding carriageways were closed to vehicular traffic for good.
And so, for the last 67 years, the old Harahan Bridge — owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad with the exception of the carriageways, which are still jointly owned by Memphis and Crittenden County — has remained a lonely, trains-only affair. That is, until last weekend when the landmark bridge was reborn as a multi-modal marvel decades in the making. Located on the northern side of the bridge atop one of the old wooden roadways, now stands a mile-long boardwalk open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Dubbed Big River Crossing, the $18 million car-free pathway is the longest “rails-with-trails” bridge (that is, longest active rail/pedestrian/bicycle bridge) in the United States and the longest pedestrian-accessible crossing on the entire length of the Mississippi.
A dusty old bridge, reborn
Nowhere else on the 2,320-mile stretch of the Big Muddy can you saunter, skip, sashay or pedal for nearly a mile across and wind up in a different city ... and state. Pretty impressive, not to mention a productive and highly scenic way to work off the damage done at Memphis institutions like Gus’s Fried Chicken and Gibson’s Donuts. And while gritty West Memphis, perhaps best known for crippling natural disasters and a high-profile murder case, isn’t usually a top diversion for most visitors to Memphis, the city’s historic commercial drag, Broadway, is in the midst of a long-term revitalization effort.
In fact, the Big River Crossing serves as the centerpiece of a much larger infrastructure overhaul: the $40 million Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector Project. The ambitious 10-mile-long project creates a vital pedestrian and cyclist link between Broadway in West Memphis with Main Street in downtown Memphis.
What’s more, Big River Crossing serves as the adaptive reuse-minded pièce de résistance of the Big River Strategic Initiative, a multi-project scheme that aims to “activate and celebrate the Mississippi River and its surrounding landscape.” Other projects helmed by the public-private regional tourism initiative include the Big River Trail and the Delta Regional River Park, both of which Big River Crossing is part of.
Although the concept for a pedestrian promenade spanning the Mississippi from Memphis to West Memphis has been kicking around since the early 1970s, funding for the project — a mix of federal grants, local and state governmental contributions and private backing — didn’t enter the picture until the last decade or so. Construction officially kicked off in 2014.
Naturally, backers of the project are banking not just on locals taking advantage of the spectacularly sited new pathway with sweeping views. Speaking to the Memphis Daily News, Paul Luker of the West Memphis Planning and Development Department refers to the revamped bridge as a “game-changer" in terms of regional tourism.
He notes: “You can oversell things. This one is going to be a little difficult to oversell. That’s the Mississippi River. We all know that. But there are people who come from all over the world just to say they saw the Mississippi River.”
Another tourist-luring pedestrian/railroad bridge that Big River Crossing will no doubt be frequently compared to during its inaugural weeks is Poughkeepsie, New York's Walkway Over the Hudson. Stretching 6,768 feet long and, gulp, 212 feet high over the Hudson River some 90 miles north of New York City, Walkway Over the Hudson is the longest pedestrian footbridge in the world. Unlike Big River Crossing, however, the Walkway over the Hudson no longer serves an active rail line. Rail service across the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, which now operates as a state historical park, ended in 1974 following a fire.
A span for all people and all occasions
Indeed, at the Big River Crossing’s grand opening fete and ribbon cutting ceremony — Fireworks! Public dignitaries! Cameos by antique steam locomotives! — this past weekend, curious out-of-towners mingled with sizable throngs of local outdoor recreation enthusiasts. This included none other than Eurythmics frontman Dave Stewart, who wanted to see what all the hubbub down by the river was about.
“I didn't believe it,” Stewart, who is in town working on a recording project, told local CBS affiliate WREG News. "Somebody said you can walk all the way into Arkansas. And I said, 'I'm from England. Do I need a passport?’”
While the conversion of a long-abandoned cantilevered carriageway into a bike-friendly pedestrian boardwalk on a 100-year-old bridge is already quite the feat, Big River Crossing isn't short on spectacle thanks to nightly light shows courtesy an advanced LED lighting system installed by Philips Lighting. Composed of over 100,000 individual LED lights, the system will, on most nights, bath the bridge in a standard “architectural white.” However, on holidays and on designated evenings that commemorate special events or causes, the bridge will be awash in vibrant colors a la the Empire State Building. Just the other evening, Harahan Bridge was aglow in fuchsia in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
And you can bet that after big wins, the historic span will be decked out in Beale Street Blue in honor of Bluff City's one and only major league sports franchise, the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
The lighting installation incorporates Philips Lighting's cloud-based ActiveSite connected technology. As reported by the Commercial Appeal, the board of the newly formed nonprofit group, Memphis Bridge Lighting, will maintain and operate the new system.
The $12 million lighting bill, which also includes a similar LED system to be installed on the Hernando de Soto Bridge in addition to the Harahan Bridge, was footed completely by a group of anonymous donors.
“Technology is radically transforming the way public spaces are illuminated while also helping to contribute to the economic, social and cultural prosperity of the local community,” says Amy Huntington, CEO of Philips Lighting Americas, in a press statement. “This dynamic lighting system featuring high quality, energy efficient LED lights is designed to enhance tourism and community impact by reimagining how people experience the iconic boardwalk.”
'A one-mile-long bike trail high above the Mississippi River right next to an active rail line. Who does that?' project director Paul Morris recently asked the Commercial Appeal. 'Memphis does that.' (Photo: Big River Strategic Initiative, LLC)
Safety rules 100 feet over Big Muddy
In addition to dazzling and highly flattering nightly illumination, safety and security appear to be top concerns at Big River Crossing. A total of 47 security cameras, monitored 24 hours a day by the Memphis Police Department, line the 10-foot-wide pathway. There are also numerous emergency call boxes installed along the route. And given the boardwalk’s close — perhaps startlingly close to some — proximity to Harahan Bridge's very much active rail line, an 11-foot-tall mesh fence erected between the two will prevent any ill-advised trespassing onto Union Pacific Railroad-owned property.
"Crowds of people will be closer to moving freight trains than ever before. I didn't dare say that until we got this project finished," joked Charlie McVean during a recent press conference. McVean, a Memphis-based commodities broker and bike advocate, is largely credited with orchestrating the rails-with-trails project and helping to push it forward through various hurdles.
As the Commercial Appeal explains, if there was a "hard part" of the entire process, it wasn't so much the actual conversion of the bridge's old carriageway into a pedestrian pathway. That went off without a hitch. More difficult was convincing an extremely apprehensive Union Pacific that one of the Mississippi River's most vital rail freight corridors and a scenic elevated walkway could safely coexist. Ultimately, Union Pacific was wooed by the idea thanks in part to the project's so-called "superman," Charlie McVean.
On the safety tip, leashed pets on leashes of 6 feet or less are permitted on the walkway although those easily sent into a frenzy by loud locomotive engines — or anything with wheels, really — are probably best left at home.
Big River Crossing is open to the public daily from sunrise to 10 p.m. and will no doubt quickly join the ranks of the marching ducks at the Peabody Hotel, that ridiculous outdoor gear store-cum-pyramid and some totally obscure mansion named Graceland as one of Memphis' most singular attractions.