The recent efforts of the Walton family and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration to make Arkansas the Cycling Hub of the South have centered on areas in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.
When it comes to cycling in Arkansas, though, the Delta provides some of the greatest potential.
In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we noted the opening of the $18 million Big River Crossing over the Mississippi River at Memphis and the decision of the St. Francis Levee District board to allow development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the bridge’s western terminus in West Memphis all the way to Marianna.
There also are ongoing efforts to pave a route through the St. Francis National Forest from where the levee route ends at Marianna all the way to Helena.
Several years ago, the state entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to develop Mississippi River State Park in the St. Francis National Forest. A visitors’ center staffed by U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Parks & Tourism staff was constructed with interactive exhibits on the Mississippi River, Crowley’s Ridge and the Delta. A campground, day-use area and nature trail were developed at nearby Bear Creek Lake. Future improvements will be made where the St. Francis River empties into the Mississippi River and along Storm Creek Lake. The St. Francis is the only national forest that touches the Mississippi River.
There’s also the ongoing development of Delta Heritage Trail State Park, which is being built in phases along 73 miles of right of way donated by Union Pacific to the state in 1992. This once was the route of Missouri Pacific’s Delta Eagle and passes through the most scenic areas of the Big Woods. This part of the state has the largest remaining segments of the Big Woods, the vast bottomland hardwood forest that once extended down both sides of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans.
The Delta Heritage Trail starts one mile south of Lexa in Phillips County and extends to Cypress Bend in Desha County. The first hiking and biking segment opened in 2002 from Helena Junction near Lexa to Barton. Just more than 20 miles of the trail have been developed.
Hutchinson and Kane Webb, the director of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, have ridden bikes on the trail and made its completion a priority. The southern terminus of the railroad right of way will connect with the Mississippi River levee, and the trail then will extend another 11 miles to historic Arkansas City.
Cyclists eventually should be able to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis and go all the way to Arkansas City.
“Arkansas will be able to boast an extraordinary route that will allow the avid bicyclist to traverse nearly the entire length of Arkansas on dedicated bicycle paths,” says Doug Friedlander of Helena, who’s leading a regional tourism initiative for the Arkansas Delta. “It would be an astonishing jewel of an attraction truly worthy of the Natural State.”
Friedlander, who’s also spearheading efforts to save the old U.S. Highway 79 bridge over the White River at Clarendon for use by cyclists and hikers, envisions a “cascade of economic development for the struggling communities of rural eastern Arkansas in the form of restaurants, convenience stores, bicycle repair services and places for overnight accommodation.”
There’s some irony, of course, in the fact that the Delta — West Memphis in particular — might become a hub of fit people in cycling gear. That’s because of the Delta’s long tradition of attracting people to gamble, drink and listen to live music.
Musician Rufus Thomas once described West Memphis as the Las Vegas of the South.
A March 1941 article in The Commercial Appeal at Memphis noted that “a Negro vice boom town has sprung up on Eighth Street of West Memphis to prey on hundreds of Memphis Negroes lured there by a bait of dice, whiskey and women. … Gambling and liquor dance drunkenly together to tunes from wailing juke boxes, the clatter of dice and the enticing bark of vice salesmen. All this runs wide open in easy view of Crittenden County and West Memphis law enforcement officers.”
The reason that so many Memphis residents — both black and white — were crossing the bridge to Arkansas was that E.H. Crump hated noise at night. The man known as Boss Crump dominated Memphis politics from his first stint as mayor (1910-15) almost until his death in 1954 at age 80.
Crump, who preferred to work behind the scenes, in essence anointed Memphis mayors for decades. He also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1931-35. Crump made sure that Memphis had the strongest noise ordinances in the country and imposed curfews from time to time.
In West Memphis, however, the action could go until daylight.
“In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis,” Charlotte Wicks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Café, referred to as Miss Annie’s Place on South 16th Street, is where B.B. King began his public entertaining. The Coffee Cup, located at 204 E. Broadway in the 1950s, is where Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast after being inducted into the U.S. Army on March 24, 1958.
“Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn. Legal greyhound racing began in the county in 1935. In the years that followed, the track closed several times — once for floods, another time due to the nation’s involvement in World War II and another time due to fire.”
The lot that had housed the Plantation Inn became a parking lot for Pancho’s, a well-known Tex-Mex restaurant. An actual plantation house was once at the site. It later became a gambling hall. Morris Berger opened the Plantation Inn in 1942.
In a 2007 Commercial Appeal story, Bob Mehr wrote: “Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, West Memphis provided a lax legal environment that spawned a variety of musical venues like the Cotton Club and Danny’s. While those clubs catered mostly to country music, the Plantation Inn opened its stages to a host of great black acts. They ranged from the Newborn family — father Phineas and sons Calvin and Phineas Jr. — to band leaders like Ben Branch, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and Willie Mitchell. Although it survived an early 1960s crackdown on local clubs, the Plantation Inn closed its doors in 1964. … Long before his trumpet would anchor the Memphis Horns and punctuate inimitable hits for the Stax label, the West Memphis-raised Wayne Jackson got his education in R&B at the Plantation Inn.”
Jackson told Mehr: “When I was a kid, I always heard about the Plantation Inn. It was one of those places the adults went. They had linen tablecloths, good steaks and good music. Then as time went by and we became teenagers, we would go and sit around and listen to the bands and the singing. They would serve us a beer and look the other way. We thought we were bigtime.”
Author Robert Gordon noted in his 1995 book “It Came From Memphis” that West Memphis clubs allowed underage white kids to hear black musicians for the first time.
“Kids could get into clubs more easily across the river, and the exposure to bands like Willie Mitchell of Phineas Newborn’s group or the many others who came and went was crucial,” Gordon wrote. “It provided those kids with a kind of primer for R&B, for the rhythms and the repertoires and the unusual horn arrangements.”
The first greyhound track at West Memphis was the Riverside Kennel Club near the Mississippi River bridge.
In 1956, Southland Park opened. It was the only facility in the area to offer pari-mutual wagering, and people came from east Arkansas, west Tennessee, north Mississippi, the Missouri Bootheel and even western Kentucky to visit the track.
Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks writes: “At its mid-century high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country. Through the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992.”
It changed because casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi. The competition almost sank Southland.
In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature passed legislation to permit video gaming at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs if approved by local voters. Almost 60 percent of voters in West Memphis supported the initiative, and a $40 million expansion began in late 2006. Business soared in 2011 when the Mississippi River flood closed the Tunica casinos for a time. Another expansion costing more than $37 million occurred in 2014 as West Memphis returned to its roots as the Vegas of the South.
With the Big River Crossing, West Memphis now will be known for more than gambling and truck stops.
Bob Robinson recently wrote an extensive piece for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a bike trip from Memphis to Marianna.
“The origin of the trail can be traced back to 2009 in Memphis when Charles McVean began manufacturing hybrid bicycles,” he wrote. “McVean is chairman and chief executive officer of McVean Trading & Investment LLC and owner of Aerobic Cruisers Hybrid Cycles LLC. Realizing that the Memphis area offered very little infrastructure to ride the bikes he was building, he came up with the idea of converting the Harahan Bridge, a 100-year-old railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, into a bicycle/pedestrian crossing.
“The bridge conversion developed scope-creep when McVean began to consider where people would ride once they crossed the river and reached the Arkansas shore. Not wanting it to be known as the bridge to nowhere, he gave this issue much consideration before arriving at the obvious solution. Create the Big River Trail, a bicycle or walking path on top of the Mississippi River levee, which stands just a short distance from the west access for the bridge (off Interstate 55) and extends all the way to Marianna.
“Obtaining permission to allow bicyles and pedestrians on top of the levee was no easy task. Sections of the levee in the St. Francis Levee District had not been open to public use since 1893. After five years of working with various associations in charge of the levee, he still lacked approval for a trail. Then McVean hired Terry Eastin of Fayetteville and formed the Big River Strategic Initiative to execute his vision.
“Eastin, Arkansas Delta Byways’ Delta Tourism Person of the Year for 2015, has been chief fundraiser and coordinator of the National Geographic Geotourism Initiative, executive director of the Mississippi River Trail Inc. and a core team member for the Walton Family Foundation-backed advocacy group Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.”
Robinson described the Harahan Bridge this way: “This century-old bridge was constructed with two rail lines in the center and roadways cantilevered off each side to accommodate vehicles, which at that time consisted mainly of horse-drawn wagons. The roadway was used until 1949. Big River Crossing gives pedestrians use of the former vehicle lane on the north side of the still-active railway for the great upriver views it offers. … Even weeks after the grand opening, when our group bicycled across, the bridge was still drawing a crowd. It appeared to be the most popular attraction along the riverfront.”
Members of the St. Francis Levee District board had long been reluctant to open the levee to the public.
“McVean had worked five years, to no avail, to open the levee,” Robinson wrote. “Just six weeks after Eastin’s hiring, after meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and receiving their endorsement, the Big River Strategic Initiative signed and presented to the St. Francis Levee District board a memorandum of understanding detailing the responsibilities of all the parties involved in the trail. The board then unanimously approved and signed it, thus opening the levee top to bicycles and pedestrians.
“McVean calls her Bulldog. But Eastin says that once she explained the economic development opportunities a Big River Trail would offer and how it could foster new enterprises compatible with the Delta’s agriculture industry, opening the levee was an easy sell. … I had picturesque views of either the Mississippi or the densely wooded ecosystem of its floodplains, whereas a motorist gets a fine view of a grass-covered hillside.”
Robinson concluded the article this way: “Big River Strategic Initiative partners are already at work to extend the route to Arkansas’ southern border. Twenty miles south of Marianna, in the town of Lexa, is the trailhead for the Delta Heritage Trail. When completed, this former Union Pacific Railroad rail bed will contribute another 84 miles to the vision. En route to Arkansas City, the Delta Heritage Trail will cross long trestles through wetlands as well as the expansive White River.
“This historic rail-to-trail conversion is being developed in phases by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, with work progressing inward from each end. At the northernmost extremity, they have completed 21 miles of compacted crushed rock trail offering a smooth ride through Delta farm regions. From the southernmost point in Arkansas City, 14 miles of paved surface paths head north.
“Eastin’s enthusiasm for these projects is monumental. The Mississippi River does not stop at Arkansas’ southern border, and neither does she. Already she is working on plans to open the levee all the way to New Orleans.”