November 26, 2014 Edition

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The Rasmussen Group with Jensen Construction Company works to install the girders of the new five-lane Black River Bridge at Black Rock. Three cranes are used to hold one of the girders in place while workers secure it. Highway 25 was partially closed to one lane of traffic while the girders were being installed.
TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl

Long history surrounds
crossing the Black River

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

Work continues on the new Black River Bridge being built 15 feet from the current bridge, which has stood there for over 60 years. The Rasmussen Group with Jensen Construction Company, who was awarded the winning bid in November 2012, started installing the girders last week.

A long history surrounds crossing the Black River at Black Rock and, prior to that, Powhatan. From ferries to a hazardous swinging bridge to an Arkansas governor determined to remove all toll bridges, many things contributed to the Highway 63 Black River crossing.

Ferries were used prior to the construction of the first bridge at Powhatan and continued as a mode of transportation for several years after bridge construction was complete.

A toll-free state-owned ferry is ascribed as one of the contributors to shutting down the Powhatan Swinging Bridge. However, even the ferries that charged were preferred by many travelers as the bridge was a daunting one to cross for even those most fearless.

However, Hoodie Davidson, who grew up in Powhatan, said he crossed it often. Ms. Farris owned the bridge and he remembered paying her a nickel every time he crossed the bridge on foot. "She was a little bitty woman," he said. Davidson said he wasn't as brave as some though, as he recalled, Frank Smith often walking the three-inch wide banisters of the bridge.

The construction of the Powhatan Swinging Bridge began in 1925 and it was opened the following year. It operated as a toll-bridge until 1938, when Gov. Carl Bailey, who was dedicated to removing all toll bridges in Arkansas, purchased rights to an existing ferry site just up the river.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the state then used highway signs to divert traffic from the bridge. Because toll revenue dropped, the owner sued, winning at the trial level. While the case was on appeal, the parties settled, and the state paid the owner $68,000 for the bridge.

Eventually, due to lost revenue and a safer structure being built at Black Rock, demolition of the Powhatan Swinging Bridge began in October of 1952. Steve Saunders, with the Powhatan Historic State Park, said it took 120 days to dismantle the bridge and at the time, Highway 63 crossed there.

Davidson said the Powhatan bridge really did start to fall apart toward the end of its life. Tom Goza and John Wayne Higginbotham fell right through the bridge and landed in a three-foot-high patch of blackberries, he said with a chuckle.

The Black River Bridge at Black Rock was built throughout the 1940s. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Society said the bridge underwent three phases of construction by three different companies. The first contract was let to the Maxwell Construction Company from Columbus, Kan., for the construction of the piers for the bridge.

The second contract was awarded to the S.M. Dixon Company of Warren in 1941 for the construction of the approach spans. The project was halted due to the shortage of steel during World War II. The final contract was issued in 1947 to the Massman Construction Company from Kansas City, Mo., who completed the bridge in 1949.

Hoodie remembered a story Ed Clemens shared about the first load he took across the new bridge. He pulled in front of someone and got rear-ended and made it past where Lake Charles is today before the sheriff caught up to him. Hoodie said that upon being asked why he left the scene, Clemens replied, "I'll be honest sir, I don't have a license."

While the bridge at Black Rock has served for about 65 years, the structural integrity of the bridge has diminished. Recent weight and speed restrictions have had to be placed on the bridge to accommodate its weakened state.

This prompted the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to develop the plans for the new bridge in 2011. Once the new bridge is complete, work will begin on deconstructing the old bridge.

Editor's note: During research for this article some conflicting dates were found, especially surrounding the Powhatan Swinging Bridge, which was a private enterprise. In those instances, the most consistently reported dates were the ones used.

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