Highway 79 Bridge

Located in Clarendon (Monroe County), the Highway 79 Bridge spanned the White River for eighty-eight years until the structure was demolished in 2019. Constructed in 1930–1931, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 1, 1984. The western approaches were added to the National Register on September 28, 2015.

The first settlers in the Clarendon area arrived around 1816. More people began to settle in the community, and by 1828, both a post office and a ferry across the White River opened. Located just south of the mouth of the Cache River, the city grew over the decades, although it was plagued by floods and was completely destroyed during the Civil War. After the war, the town once again served as an important port for the shipment of cotton down the White River.

Constructed in 1883, the first bridge over the river carried the Cotton Belt Railroad. The continued growth of the agricultural industry in the area, coupled with the improvements made to highways in eastern Arkansas, led to discussions to construct a bridge to carry vehicles. The ferry, which began operations in 1828, continued to operate at this time.

The Arkansas Highway Department originally planned to construct the bridge about four miles south of Clarendon to carry U.S. Highway 3 over the river. This location was chosen to avoid extensive approach work crossing Roc Roe Bayou and two old riverbeds but proved unpopular with the residents of the town. The original contract of the construction of the bridge was awarded to Harry Bovey in 1926, but the work was not completed.

After several more years of planning, the construction of the bridge was announced by the Arkansas Highway Commission in March 1930. Located north of the railroad bridge, it would require about two miles of approach work on the west side of the river. The contract for the construction of the bridge was awarded to the Austin Bridge Company of Dallas, Texas, for a cost of $1,532,572.50. The Raymond Concrete Pile Company worked as a subcontractor on the project and drove the concrete piles needed for the bridge into the riverbed in fifty-nine days, ending that portion of the project in September 1930.

Three workers died during the construction of the bridge, but it opened after less than a year of construction. (The original contract called for the project to be completed in less than 400 days.) After work on the bridge ceased in March 1931, it opened to traffic. The citizens of Clarendon held an extensive celebration for the new structure on June 11, 1931, complete with a parade, an air show, a queen and maids, and even a stunt man who dove off the structure into the river.

After the June 11 celebration, the bridge began collecting tolls to recoup the money spent by the state. A three-story tollhouse stood on the eastern end of the bridge and collected tolls from travelers crossing the bridge in both directions. Tolls continued to be collected on the bridge until 1938, when a special session of the General Assembly abolished all tolls on state-owned bridges. In return, the federal government reimbursed the state for half of the cost of some of the bridges in the state.

The bridge was a double-span steel Warren truss on a two-lane reinforced concrete floor. Designed by Ira Hendrick of the Austin Bridge Company, the bridge was 720 feet long and was a total height of just under 234 feet. The bridge rested on four concrete piers. The piers were in two sets, with each pier in a set located 160 feet apart. The two sets of piers were 400 feet apart to allow boats easy passage. Access to the bridge from the east side of the river was gained by traversing two concrete approaches measuring 336 feet. The approach originally included a number of streetlights, which were later removed.

The second nomination included the western approach to the bridge. Extensive fill work was required to build up the roadway to cross Roc Roe Bayou and the old riverbed. The approach included about 17,000 feet of fill and bridges. The bridges in the section are twenty-four feet wide and rest on square concrete pilings. Both sides of the bridges are lined with concrete railings.

In the early twenty-first century, efforts began to construct a new bridge built to modern standards. After several years of work, a new bridge and roadway south of Clarendon opened to traffic in 2015. With the United States Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and the White River National Wildlife Refuge located on the western side of the bridge, permission had to be obtained from the agency to construct a new structure. In order to construct the new bridge, the state agreed to demolish the 1931 bridge and restore the area to its appearance before construction, planting hardwood trees and restoring the topography of the area. About 9,000 feet of the western approach were destroyed during the construction of the new bridge to the south.

The nonprofit Friends of the Historic White River Bridge at Clarendon worked for more than five years to save the bridge and sued the state in order to prevent the demolition of the structure. The suit reached the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled on June 6, 2019, that the Arkansas Highway Department could not be forced to stop the demolition. Other efforts to save the bridge failed, although the planned demolition did not take place in August 2019. The final demolition took place on November 19, 2019, with a controlled detonation costing more than $10 million. Clarendon resident Alison Steeland won a raffle for the opportunity to detonate the explosives. The bridge was delisted from the National Register on September 8, 2020.

For additional information:
“Highway 79 Bridge.” National Register for Historic Places registration form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Office, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/MO0058.nr.pdf (accessed December 22, 2020).

Oman, Noel. “Time Runs out for 88-Year-Old Arkansas Bridge; Demolition Set for August.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 25, 2019, p. 2B.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 02/25/2021