Crossing into Arkansas

FIRST IN A SERIES

Although the bridge opened a decade ago in 2010, folks in southeast Arkansas still refer to it as the “new Greenville bridge.”

The old bridge, which was demolished, had opened in 1940.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In 1951, a jet from the nearby Greenville Air Force Base struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic by the next day.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s. Cotton was king, and Greenville is where the area planters went to do business and have fun. Mayor Milton C. Smith knew, however, that there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry if the good times were to continue. He joined forces with John Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The two men spent weeks at a time in Washington during the 1930s, lobbying for federal funding. Smith’s barrel hoop business went bankrupt due to his continued absences.

Eventually, Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas introduced a bill to get things moving on the bridge. Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas had earlier joined forces with Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi to promote the bridge. Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey was another key ally.

Fox met with civic leaders from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge could mean for the South. He urged people across the region to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A consultant from Kansas City determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville ferry, wouldn’t be a suitable site for a bridge. The recommendation was to build the bridge below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches would have to be built. The estimated cost was $4.25 million.

In September 1938, the Greenville mayor and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington seek money from the federal Works Progress Administration. They successfully made the case that construction of a bridge would create jobs for hundreds of men who otherwise would be unemployed. On Sept. 21, 1938, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times at Greenville reported: “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

The bridge was opened for traffic on Oct. 2, 1940, and named for former Congressman Benjamin Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, which established a national flood-control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who first was elected to Congress in 1902, was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and thus a federal responsibility. That paper helped sway public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississippi Rover.

The Delta Democrat Times would later write of the bridge: “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

At the time the bridge opened, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River. Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later.

The new bridge that opened in 2010 cost $110 million. The four-lane, cable-stayed structure has become an architectural landmark for the area during the past decade. The approach on the Arkansas side — over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain — cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side — over the east side levee and floodplain — cost about $86 million.

It’s fitting that this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82 begins in Greenville, which almost seems like a part of Arkansas since it has been a town to which southeast Arkansas residents have flocked for decades. For those of who love history, Greenville is a delight despite the loss of population and economic vitality in recent years.

There’s the Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St., which was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of the Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

There’s also the Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and other well-known writers.

There’s the First National Bank Building, built in 1903, with marble and stained-glass windows imported from Italy.

There’s St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St., which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in his memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

There’s the building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times that advocated racial tolerance and won him a Pulitzer Price. There’s a historic marker out front.

And, of course, there’s the original Doe’s Eat Place.

Well-known food writer Michael Stern once said of this restaurant: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.

“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for the regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”

Dominick “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant. The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery did well until the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the area economy. Big Doe went into bootlegging to make ends meet. In about 1940, his wife received a good recipe for tamales and began selling them at the store.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website tells the rest of the story: “At first, Big Doe ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironically, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.

As you head west into Arkansas, your first stop should be the Lakeport Plantation. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Eight years later, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Turn off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. You’ll later see the house on your left.

Lakeport once was used as the name of a steamboat landing on the Mississippi River from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped each year down the river to New Orleans. The house, which was given to ASU by the Sam Epstein Angel family, is the only remaining plantation home in Arkansas that’s on the Mississippi River. The surrounding plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves cleared out the bottomland hardwood forests.

Joel Johnson came from Kentucky and established the plantation in the early 1830s. The house was built in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein in 1927.

Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack writes: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927 when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.

“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton-ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”

DeBlack describes Joel Johnson as “the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family. Johnson sold his house and gristmill in Scott County, Ky., and set off for Chicot County. He purchased a tract of land southeast of Old River Lake (present day Lake Chicot) just above a large curve in the river called American Bend. … For the next 15 years, Johnson expanded his holdings in land and slaves and brought more land under cultivation. The soil produced abundantly, and slave-based plantation agriculture became firmly entrenched in Chicot County. By the time of his death in June 1846, Joel Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres of rich Delta land, as well as 95 slaves.”

Lycurgus Johnson was 28 when his father died. He had been born in 1818 in Kentucky and joined his father in Arkansas in the 1830s. He and Lydia Taylor had 12 children, four of whom died before reaching age three. By 1860, Lycurgus Johnson owned about 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

DeBlack describes the house, which was built in the Greek Revival style, as “an imposing two-story, L-shaped structure containing 17 rooms and about 8,000 square feet. Constructed largely of cypress from the surrounding region and situated amidst cotton fields, the mansion faced east toward the river. The house was a showplace of the state’s cotton aristocracy. The exterior of the house was painted the color of straw, and blue-green shutters adorned the windows. The front of the structure, along with the base of the L, was graced by a two-story portico with a triangular pediment gable and centered rose windows. Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico. An ornate, wrought-iron and lacework grill, in an oak leaf and acorn design, surrounded a first-floor porch on the northeastern corner of the house.

“The house was built on a slight elevation in the terrain, and the first floor was set four feet above the grade as protection against flooding. The entry had 11-foot-high wood-paneled doors flanked by glass sidelights and a large central entry hall measuring more than 26 feet long and almost 16 feet wide. A chandelier hung from an elaborate ceiling rosette on the 14-foot ceiling, and a decorative painted cloth covered the floor. The hallway was large enough to accommodate parties and dancing.”

Union soldiers descended on Lakeport during the Civil War and took all of the horses, mules and cattle.

“Wealthy planters like Lycurgus Johnson were severely affected by the war,” DeBlack writes. “Johnson’s loss in slaves alone was well over $100,000, to say nothing of his losses in crops and livestock. But while many of his neighbors sank into economic ruin and despair, Johnson survived and even prospered. He was able to negotiate successfully for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves before the war, and he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer.

“The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent, a man not generally favorably disposed toward the planters, wrote that Johnson was a ‘model man of Chicot County.’ The 600 bales of cotton that Lakeport produced in 1870 made Johnson the largest cotton producer in Chicot County, though it was considerably less than the 1,300 bales the plantation produced in 1860.”

Continuing toward Lake Village on U.S. 82, we drive along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake runs for almost 22 miles and covers 5,000 acres. Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight over the lake in 1923.

“Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a shorter pathway to the east,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake. After his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning ‘stump,’ in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the lakeshore.

“White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton. Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake.”

In the 1860 census, there was a population of 9,234 people in Chicot County. Of those residents, 7,512 were slaves.

“Until the 1920s, water from Lake Chicot was considered pure enough that the city of Lake Village used it untreated,” Lancaster writes. “However, that changed later in the decade as local work on the Mississippi River levee began. To prevent flooding behind the levee, Cypress Creek Gap, through which flowed drainage north of Lake Chicot to the Mississippi, was closed. A new system of ditches and canals diverted drainage waters southward. In 1926-27, the local drainage district extended Connerly Bayou on the lake’s northern end to connect Lake Chicot with nearby Macon Lake, with drainage extended through Ditch Bayou on the lake’s southern end.”

The Great Flood of 1927 caused the dam on Connerly Bayou to break. Silt poured into Lake Chicot, and water levels dropped.

“Pressured by the state attorney general, the local drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its normal level, but the dam washed out the following year,” Lancaster writes. “Beginning in the 1940s, increased clearing and cultivation of the surrounding watershed, combined with the growing use of pesticides on farmland, left the lower three-quarters of the lake (south of where Connerly Bayou entered it) a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 to protect that portion of the lake.”

A concrete dam was built across Ditch Bayou in 1956, but mud and silt continued to enter the lake. What had once been one of the South’s great spots for bass fishing almost saw the end of recreational fishing with the exception of the northern part of the lake.

The Game & Fish Commission joined forces with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicot County Rural Development Authority beginning in 1968 on what was known as the Lake Chicot Project. A dam was built on Connerly Bayou with gates that could open or close depending on the quality of the water. Dirty water was diverted to a pumping plant that sent it to the Mississippi River via Rowdy Bend.

“Obtaining the necessary funding for the project took some time, and the pumping plant was installed in 1985,” Lancaster writes. “That year, the Corps of Engineers drew down the lake to compact the sediment on the bottom and seeded the lake with plants that would provide a food base for fish populations. Game fish were restocked. Within a few years, the lake had largely recovered.”

I believe it to be one of the most important government projects ever done in the Arkansas Delta. Arkansas’ largest natural lake had been restored. Lake Chicot was beautiful again.

Post to Twitter