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Spanning the Big Muddy

In March 2003, retired Air Force Col. Joe Pope wrote this on the website from his home at Fair Oaks Ranch in Texas: “In February 1943, shortly after the Greenville Bridge opened, we moved to Montrose, where my mother and father lived until their deaths in the 1980s. I graduated from high school at Lake Village in 1951, the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 and spent 22 years in the armed services. During these years, I crossed the bridge many times visiting my parents and even ‘bombed’ it electronically several times when I was a navigator on B-52s at Columbus, Miss., in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“In 1989, my wife and I moved back to Lake Village and lived there until 2001, when we moved back to Texas for family health reasons. I know firsthand how much the old bridge has meant to generations of people on both sides of the bridge and to millions of travelers who have used the bridge through the years. When we left, we sold our home on Lake Chicot to the project engineer for the new bridge. I am sure he is overseeing the building of a fine and unique new bridge that will serve many more generations of local residents and travelers. May God bless their endeavors.”

On Monday, that “fine and unique new bridge” will be dedicated between Lake Village and Greenville.

On Wednesday, traffic will begin crossing it on U.S. Highway 82.

The old bridge will be demolished. A contract in the amount of $22.4 million was awarded in January to Granite Construction Co. to remove the bridge. Demolition is scheduled to be complete by Sept. 21, 2012. At that point, the 1940 Greenville Bridge will be nothing but a memory. But what a story it was as Delta leaders worked during the Great Depression to find the money needed to build a bridge between Arkansas and Mississippi.

“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 the comments section of an earlier post I wrote about Greenville, Jack Rhodes recalled the day in 1951 that a jet from nearby Greenville Air Force Base, which is no longer in operation, 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 after 22 hours.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s, but Mayor Milton C. Smith knew there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry for growth to continue. He joined forces with John A. Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, and spent weeks at a time in Washington during 1937-38, lobbying for congressional funding.

According to the history posted at “The two spent so much time at their efforts, Smith’s Queen City barrel hoop business would eventually go bankrupt from his continued absence. The first order of business was to get Congress to pass a law authorizing the bridge. Fox, whose national network of friends reached all the way to the nation’s capital, wrote to Mississippi Congressman W.M. Whittington about the matter in May 1937 and was told the timing of his request was not good.

“While considering what to do next, Fox was agreeably surprised to pick up the newspaper days later and read that Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas had introduced a bill requesting permission for the bridge. Fox worked Capitol Hill with Kitchens, Whittington and other friends, including Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi and Sen. Joe. T. Robinson of Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas, Carl E. Bailey, had been an ally from the early days of the bridge campaign.”

Fox met with chambers of commerce from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge would mean for the South. Everywhere he spoke, he urged people to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Roosevelt.

“With all permissions granted, Smith and Fox turned their focus to financing,” the website history states. “How much would a new bridge truly cost? Smith and Fox hired Ash Howard Needles & Tammen of Kansas City, an engineering consultant with a large portfolio of major bridges, to conduct a study and make the estimate. The consultant determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville fairy, was not a suitable site for a bridge. Their recommendation was to build the bridge downstream, 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 to the bridge would be needed. The new estimate for construction: $4.25 million.

“Where Fox succeeded as a master of politics, Mayor Smith succeeded as a master of finance, and during the year that followed, the mayor’s skills would be tested to the fullest. A survey of traffic volume, commissioned to satisfy possible investors, concluded there wouldn’t be sufficient income from tolls to warrant construction of a $4.5 million bridge and that the project merited only $2.55 million in financing. The Reconstruction Finance Corp. would lend the $2.55 million, but this left Smith and Fox some $2 million short.”

In September 1938, Smith and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington to seek money from the Works Progress Administration. They had to make the case to the WPA that construction of a bridge would create lots of jobs for men who otherwise would be unemployed in the Delta. They made that case successfully.

On Sept. 21, 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 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.”

On Oct. 2, 1940, the bridge was officially opened to traffic. It was named for former Congressman Benjamin G. Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917 that 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 was born in 1865 and died in 1923, was known as Our Ben to his constituents. His father, Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, had been a Confederate general who fought at Gettysburg and served as Mississippi’s governor from 1865-68. His great-grandfather, Ralph Humphreys, was the colonel of a Virginia regiment in the American Revolution. When Ben Humphreys married Louise Yerger, the daughter of Greenville’s mayor, Jefferson Davis was one of the guests at the wedding.

Ben Humphreys was elected to Congress in 1902 and 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 a federal responsibility. That paper swayed 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 Mississppi River.

The Delta Democrat Times later would write of the 1940 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.”

Beginning next week, there will be no traffic on that bridge for the first time in seven decades.

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