Bridging Two Cities Across the Mississippi, New Trail Project a Grand Moment for Tennessee

Posted 08/09/13 by Marianne Wesley Fowler in Building Trails

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In the second decade of the 20th century, the world was engulfed in war. The city of Memphis was an important center of military and industrial activity, yet there were few ways for goods and people to cross the mighty barrier that was the Mississippi River.

So the local communities in Tennessee and Arkansas joined together in an effort to get a new bridge built. It took some effort, cajoling, and perhaps a shady promise or two. But the Harahan Bridge, crossing the Mississippi between West Memphis, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, was eventually constructed. The first train crossed the Harahan Bridge in 1916. With celebrations and additional worked delayed by the war, the wagon ways were opened in the fall of the 

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following year.

By 1949, the wooden roadways on the bridge were no longer practical. Newer bridges allowed for safer and shorter crossings. But the busy railroads kept using bridge, and continued to operate dozens of trains a day. What became of the abandoned roadways? We have heard from Memphis natives that a courageous local official won a court battle to keep the roadway portion of the bridge in public ownership. More than 60 years later, that victory is about to take on real significance for the people of Memphis.

In 2010, locals began to explore whether there could be a way for people to safely cross the Mississippi River on a bike or by foot. A solution proved to be elusive, as it was exceedingly expensive to build a bridge with a trail across such a large river. Then they realized that the Harahan Bridge had unused roadways that were owned by the adjacent communities. The Harahan's roadways were long removed, but the structural steel remained in place.

Fast forward a few years, and the Main Street to Main Street Connector Project is linking the main streets of Memphis and West Memphis via a new trail on the Harahan Bridge. When it opens in 2014, it will be one of very few bike and pedestrian friendly crossings of the Mississippi River. It will provide a safe route to each community's downtown, and connect to Memphis' growing greenways network.

We previously highlighted the Harahan Bridge project for its unique funding arrangement. The project is benefiting from multi-million dollar investments by federal, state, county and local governments, as well as dedicated taxes on downtown businesses. The progress of the Harahan Bridge vision has illustrated how important it is for bike-pedestrian-trail advocates to have access to multiple funding sources.

"We are ecstatic to have this signature project come to fruition so quickly," says Greg Maxted, Executive Director of the Harahan Bridge Project. "We started talking about the project in 2010, got private funding and support in 2011, won a TIGER grant in 2012. Now the engineering is complete and the construction will start in the fall."

The new U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, visited Memphis this week to tour the Main Street to Main Street Connector Project, evidence of its high profile and the widespread support behind this multi-state project.

"Putting together a coalition of two states, two counties, and two cities, along with support of the private sector, was key to winning the TIGER grant in 2012," Maxted says. (Click the image above for an animated look at the vision for the completed pathway).

All this month we are featuring stories about great places in Tennessee. Please share your stories on Facebook, Twitter (@railstotrails) and Instagram (@railstotrails), using #RTCTennessee.

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