Big River

Boardwalk crossing over the Mississippi River seen as huge tourism draw

By Bill Dries

Jim Jackson had it planned. At the third annual Arkansas Delta Flatlander bicycle ride, the 100-kilometer bike ride would become what it was intended to be – a ride across the Mississippi River from West Memphis to Memphis across the northern side of the Harahan Bridge.

“As with most construction projects, it didn’t happen that way,” the director of the West Memphis Office of Tourism said two weeks from the updated Oct. 22 date for the opening of the Big River Crossing – the bicycle and pedestrian boardwalk on the northern side of the Harahan.

The Flatlander and the companion Gravel Grinder ride along the system of levee trails in Crittenden County went on as planned on Oct. 8.

The Big River Trail head in West Memphis leading to and coming from the West Memphis side of the Big River Crossing is across Broadway Street from the Pancho’s restaurant and an entrance to the city’s business district. (Memphis News/Bill Dries)

A freight train passes over the Arkansas terminus of Big River Crossing. Many businesses in West Memphis are waiting to see the traffic it brings. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

A portion of the original wooden planks which lined the vehicle lanes is still intact on the Arkansas side of the Harahan. The bridge served wagon and auto traffic from 1917 to 1949. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Filmmaker Joseph Robbins films a barge passing underneath the Harahan Bridge from the new Big River Crossing, which opens to the public on Oct. 22. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Big River Crossing on the Harahan Bridge is ready to open to the public Saturday, Oct. 22. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The two bike rides, with the Gravel Grinder being added a year ago, are Jackson’s answer to critics and doubters of the $17.5 million project, funded with federal transportation grants and money raised from private donors.

“The question has been, once people have a chance and are able to ride across from Memphis and get to Arkansas, we have never wanted them to say, ‘Now what?’’’ Jackson said.

But when the Big River Crossing opens to the public at 1 p.m. on Oct. 22, it might be a while before that comes into play in a big way.

Most of those who come to the crossing, from both sides of the river, are expected to come for the view it offers of the Mississippi River to the north.

In the initial reaction of those who have taken the preview tour, the crossing is something like the view from the top of the Pyramid without the $10 cover charge and rampant taxidermy.

But beyond that, the crossing’s view of the river and the landscape on both sides offers different perspectives every few steps.

The “wagonways” – initially wooden planks built on a steel frame on each side of the Harahan to carry foot and wagon and auto traffic – opened in 1917, a year after the bridge proper opened. And the wagonways came with their own contract – that was the first step in an intense quest almost a century later by Memphis commodities broker Charles McVean to rebuild them as part of a bicycle trial he hopes one day runs all the way to New Orleans.


Negotiating with railroad companies is always challenging and Union Pacific railroad is the current owner of the bridge, which is a major freight corridor. But the railroad doesn’t own the wagonways.

The Memphis Railway Bridge and Terminal Co. sold the Memphis part of the wagonways to the city of Memphis for $25,000 in August 1917. That includes the approaches on the Memphis side of the bridge.

Crittenden County bought the Arkansas side, including the approaches, for $40,000 in a pair of transactions.

In both cases the sale terms are “forever.”

From there McVean did what he does like few other people. He went to the top of the management chart at Union Pacific, to then-Union Pacific chairman and CEO James Young. He jumped the rest of the chain of command at the railroad with help from a key contact, Mike Johans, then a U.S. senator and former governor of Nebraska, where Union Pacific is headquartered.

“There’s nothing theoretical about this,” McVean said in 2011 as he and officials from both sides of the bridge were about to fly to their first meeting with Young, who died in 2014. “I think it has the highest payout to incremental investment of any public works project imaginable. All we’re doing is tying together existing assets.”

The group led by McVean left Omaha with a general agreement from Union Pacific to work with the locals on the boardwalk.

It would be another three years before construction began, even with the rapid start and agreement in principle. During that time, federal funding for the project came when the Harahan project was combined with an application for a federal grant to improve the main streets in Memphis and West Memphis, a suggestion U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen made.

The Main to Main Connector Project, as the larger scope came to be known, came with tight deadlines for construction. And the work on the Harahan didn’t begin until all of the funding was secured for it. Initial bids came in at $21.5 million, but after rebidding were $5 million lower, with more money raised from private donors.

McVean sees the crossing, which he also led the way in rebranding, as a destination for travelers from around the world looking for a long bicycle journey, particularly in a region that is mostly flat.


The Big River Strategic Initiative is the public-private coalition taking the broader regional tourism view.

Memphis Convention & Visitors Center president Kevin Kane agrees with McVean based on the city’s experience with the Shelby Farms Greenline, which was filled with users before its 2011 formal opening.

“It’s already starting to happen,” Kane said last month of the crossing. “The whole cultural, outdoor recreational tourism properties that we now have that didn’t even exist here just a few years ago are enormous for us.”

Paul Luker, director of the West Memphis Planning and Development Department, calls Big River Crossing a “game changer.”

“You can oversell things. This one is going to be a little difficult to oversell,” Luker said. “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.”

Beyond the Delta River Regional Park on the West Memphis flood plain, with its trails and the levee trail system, private business in West Memphis is cautious.

“Us that are already in the choir, we tell people about what’s going to happen because we’ve seen it in other places,” Luker said, specifically mentioning the Shelby Farms Greenline’s impact on the High Point Terrace neighborhood. “But before you can prove it to them, a lot of what you hear with the people is that it’s their money on the line. They just say, ‘We don’t know if that is going to happen here or not.’ They’ve actually got to see it.”

The 100-day contract to build the first trail in what had been tentatively called the “eco-park” and is now the Delta River Regional Park should be ready for work this month with a completion date in early 2017. That first trail will take those who come across the river from Memphis onto the flood plain and “literally down to the banks of the Mississippi River” on the Arkansas side, said Jackson, the West Memphis tourism director.

“It will follow the contour of the river to Dacus Lake and around it and circle back.

“It’s the first phase of the master plan to get hopefully all of that property between (Interstates) 40 and 55 as a tourist bike destination,” Jackson said.

Dacus Lake is privately owned; access to the flood plain is negotiated from county-owned access roads with farmers. The levee trail work and access was negotiated with the St. Francis Levee District.

Luker believes those using Big River Crossing will respond to the chance to see the Memphis skyline from the flood plain as well as the natural setting with large shade trees around the oxbow lake. And as they come, the land owners will respond to the demand.

“You still have to be careful with how you do it because that area goes under water an average of about a month a year,” Luker said. “Whatever you do in there, you are going to have to pay attention to the environment you are in. Once you get on our side of the levee, you don’t have those problems.”


The city of West Memphis became an ongoing concern because of the levee, which kept it from suffering the same fate that the Hopefield settlement located in the flood plain did. The plan is to highlight Hopefield as well as Native American trails in the park.

West Memphis’ “Main Street” is Broadway, and it starts about three miles west of the end of Big River Crossing.

Most Broadway merchants are also taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I think in the future you will see more restaurant-type businesses,” Luker said. “The more stuff you have to do, the more people you will attract. It’s a chicken and egg kind of deal.”

A now-weathered metal bike tube sculpture on Broadway is an early harbinger and hope for what comes next in West Memphis. It is about 3 1/2 miles from the western end of the Big River Crossing.

The tube-shaped bike rider is a few feet from the entrance to the original Pancho’s restaurant that faced Broadway.

During the Flatlander and Grinder bike rides this month, the parking lot was filled with bicycles on racks and in repair tents. On the split-rail fence that defines the parking lot where the Plantation Inn once stood, a bike was chained near a sign that reads “Pancho’s Since 1956.”

The site of the inn, which is now the parking lot for Pancho’s, includes a historical marker that explains the importance of the Plantation Inn in the making of Memphis soul and rhythm and blues music.

The Berger family that founded the Plantation Inn also started Pancho’s, which was the first of three pioneering local Mexican restaurants with a featured cheese dip that is now sold in several hundred regional grocery stores and the restaurants.

Dignitaries from the Oct. 22 formal opening of the crossing will also gather at Pancho’s to mark the occasion.

Across Broadway from Pancho’s and a faded pedestrian crosswalk is the trailhead for the Big River Trail and nearby, the starting point for both the Flatlander and Gravel Grinder bicycle runs.

At least for now, Big River Crossing is a return to corridors in Memphis and West Memphis that have remained important to both cities, but in a less prominent way since the arrival of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to the north in the 1970s.

The crossing isn’t a return to the past. It comes as residential development is preparing to jump E.H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis and go further into South Memphis from South Main Street where construction activity is strong.

The flood plain gives the portrait of West Memphis in transition a more natural setting to begin with.

The Gravel Grinder riders on the service roads on Oct. 8 passed the Lehman Mobile Home Park, including a large willow tree just inside the entrance that obscures part of a home on the corner lot. The park office is a large, mid-century round house with windows and a wooden dome surrounded by tropical plants.

Riders in the day’s earlier Flatlander ride shared roadways by the levees and grain silos with 18-wheelers. The levees were more of a “fat tire” ride for the Grinder and are still awaiting the finer, more compacted gravel that will make it a smoother ride in the near future.

The railroad tracks and levee trials run side-by-side and at one point, the Pyramid, on the Memphis side of the river, is perfectly aligned with them before they again go their separate ways only to meet again later.

The roads and levee trails south of Broadway offer kudzu-covered decaying mobile homes next to modest subdivisions handed down with as much care as possible. The closer you get to the river, the more the natural setting begins to exert its dominance. But a small pond still features a few good-sized chunks of rebar, despite numerous “No Dumping” signs.

Kids on Wal-Mart bikes at the edge of one of the subdivisions near the trailhead stopped at the edge of their neighborhood to watch adults in brightly colored outfits ride different bikes on a longer journey.

If you live on either side of the river and are older, you’ve been here – but probably not at the speed of a bicycle for quite a while.