Mississippi River Bridges

There are five bridges that span the Mississippi River from Tennessee. A “Hands Across the River” Committee was formed in 1946 to discuss the construction of a bridge linking West Tennessee to Missouri. The U.S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of Public Roads approved construction in 1964. Construction of the four-lane cantilever Caruthersville Bridge began in 1969 and was finally completed in December 1976. Prior to its construction, travelers had to use one of five ferry boats or the bridges at Cairo, Illinois, or Memphis to cross the Mississippi River. The Caruthersville Bridge crosses the river between Caruthersville and Dyersburg and carries travelers on Interstate 155 and U.S. Route 412.

Four bridges cross the Mississippi at Memphis: the Frisco Bridge, the Harahan, the Memphis and Arkansas, and the Hernando DeSoto. When it opened in 1892, the Frisco was the third-longest bridge in the world and was the first to span the Mississippi south of St. Louis. The opening of the bridge was celebrated with parades, fireworks, and meetings of the Deep Water Convention. Hundreds of spectators watched, and cannons were fired as the first train crossed the bridge and then turned around and crossed the span again. Originally called the Great Bridge at Memphis, the three-span steel-truss bridge was renamed the Frisco 1903 when it was purchased by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway.

The Harahan Bridge was named for Illinois Central Railroad President J. T. Harahan and spans the river two hundred feet north of the Frisco. It opened to railroad traffic on July 14, 1916, with no official ceremony. It was first used by the Missouri Pacific, the Cotton Belt, and the Rock Island Railroads. Lanes for car and pedestrian traffic were not part of the original design but were opened in September 1917 after repeated requests from the public. The Harahan had a wooden roadbed and was heavily damaged by fire on September 18, 1928. While it was being repaired, automobiles were transported across the bridge on flat cars on the Frisco. The Harahan was also plagued by rust, rotting timbers, and overcrowding and was declared inadequate in the 1930s. Car traffic on the bridge became limited after the opening of the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge in 1949, and it eventually resumed serving only railway traffic in 1950.

Construction of a new highway bridge solely for automobile traffic was authorized by the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge Commission under an act of Congress in 1939. Yet construction was not completed on the bridge, which was officially named the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, until 1949 due to World War II and a construction workers’ strike in 1945. Memphis political leader E. H. Crump, chair of the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge Commission, originally suggested facetiously that it be named the “Eleven Year Bridge” in reference to the lengthy construction time, while several members of the commission suggested naming the bridge after Crump. The four-lane bridge, which carries Interstate 55 across the Mississippi, opened December 17, 1949, in a driving cold rain in front of crowd of 150 spectators on the Memphis side. A procession of 256 vehicles was led by Hal Allen, head of the Traffic Division of the Memphis Police Department, and included city officials from Memphis, West Memphis, and 1,500 shut-ins from various Memphis institutions. By the end of the day, 13,196 vehicles had crossed the bridge. The Memphis and Arkansas, which was built just south of the Frisco, stretches 3,694 feet and cost $14,500,000 to complete. The bridge was congested and plagued by numerous head-on collisions in the center lane until a concrete center median was completed in 1972.

A fourth bridge at Memphis was proposed in the late 1950s to link the expressways in Tennessee and Arkansas. Construction of the tied-in double-arch structure began in May 1967. The Hernando de Soto Bridge, named after the Spanish explorer who reached the Mississippi River in 1541, opened to automobile traffic on August 2, 1973. Construction of the five-and-a-half-mile, six-lane bridge cost fifty-seven million dollars. It formally opened August 17, 1973, with a ceremony in the middle of the bridge attended by Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn and Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers, who carried a beaver hat worn by Arkansas Governor James Eagle in 1892 at the opening ceremony of the Great Bridge at Memphis. An estimated crowd of 200,000 gathered to see the bridge lit with two hundred sodium vapor lights on September 5, 1986. A black-tie gala on Mud Island, a boat parade, an air show, and a concert by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra celebrated the bridge’s lighting.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Mississippi River Bridges
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018