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Walking across the Mississippi River in Memphis
By Tom Adkinson


MEMPHIS, Tennessee – It took a hundred years for the Harahan Bridge to get the celebration it deserved, but by the time the party happened, the bridge had a new name and had become popular for uses its builders likely never imagined.

This impressive span over the mighty Mississippi River is just downstream from the Memphis central business district and landmarks such as the Peabody Hotel, Beale Street and an oft-photographed statue of Elvis Presley.

mississippi river
A setting sun over Arkansas casts golden rays through Big River Crossing and onto the Mississippi River. Image by Big River Crossing.

It was built primarily for train traffic – and trains still rumble over it today – but it now is also highly popular with joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers and people who simply want to get out in the fresh air and walk to another state. Arkansas, of course, is at the western end of the bridge.

Bridge builders who wove gigantic rafts out of willow trees to create work platforms as construction inched across the river, probably would be amazed that their labor produced a structure where city dwellers and tourists would flock to get some exercise.

The bridge’s new name is Big River Crossing, and it was the renaming in 2016 that finally produced the celebration that never happened when the bridge first opened.

 

mississippi river towboat
A towboat pushes barges up the Mississippi River after passing under Big River Crossing; image by Tom Adkinson.


Construction of the Harahan Bridge began in 1913 and wrapped up in 1917. The design included two cantilevered “wagonways” for vehicular traffic, of special note since the Harahan Bridge became the only span south of the Ohio River’s confluence with the Mississippi with space for vehicular traffic, according to a bridge history in Tennessee Conservationist Magazine.

mississippi river bridge jogger
A jogger has Big River Crossing all to himself for a run to and from Arkansas; image by Tom Adkinson.

Special for its “wagonways” or not, bridge construction ended after America was involved in World War I, and a sense of propriety precluded something as frivolous as festivities to mark the opening of a bridge.

The cantilevered roadways fell out of use after a few decades and went unused for nearly 70 years. A movement began in 2014 to adapt the roadway on the northern side of the bridge for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles.

mississippi river state line sign
The imaginary line that separates Tennessee from Arkansas is marked in the middle of Big River Crossing; image by Tom Adkinson.

Federal grants and negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad paid off in 2016 when Big River Crossing was finished, and people began parading over the nearly one-mile walkway. The actual celebration was a noisy affair that included an antique locomotive, fireworks and a demonstration of now thousands of LED lights can change the color of the entire bridge. Since then, it’s a generally quieter scene – except when a train rumbles through.

When you amble, jog or pedal across Big River Crossing today, a train may roll past you, a towboat with a string of barges may pass underneath you and an airplane may fly overhead on the way to Memphis International Airport. The Memphis skyline is upriver, and in the distance, it’s easy to see the Pyramid, now home to a massive Bass Pro Shop.

mississippi arcade restaurant
The Arcade Restaurant, where Elvis Presley enjoyed peanut butter and banana sandwiches, is near Big River Crossing; image by Tom Adkinson.

For more exercise on the Memphis side of the river, Martyr’s Park (named for people who stayed in Memphis during a yellow fever epidemic in1878 to help those infected) and the riverside Tom Lee Park are nearby.

And if you want to replenish your energy stores in true Memphis fashion, the Arcade Restaurant is only about a mile away. This is where to get a peanut butter and banana sandwich – just like the ones Elvis Presley enjoyed in this classic establishment that opened in 1919.

Trip Planning Resources: BigRiverCrossing.com and MemphisTravel.com

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at CornersOfTheCountry.com.)

Published May 1, 2020













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