Old River Bridge
The Old River Bridge spans a section of the Saline River at the end of River Street in Benton (Saline County). It is one of the oldest remaining bridges of its kind in the state. The Old River Bridge spans 260 feet and is composed of iron beams, two large trusses, and a wooden platform supported by iron columns. The bridge itself dates back to an act of the Saline County Court, which appropriated $5,000 “for the construction of an iron bridge over the Saline River at the Military Road Crossing” in 1889. Construction was completed in 1891 by Youngstown Bridge Company of Youngstown, Ohio. The land around it is also important, having been the site of William Lockhart’s settlement at what he called Saline Crossings in 1815. Lockhart was the first white man to build a permanent settlement in what is now Saline County.
The bridge was built along the Military Road, which, in turn, was built along what was then called “the Old Missouri Trail,” and more commonly called the Southwest Trail. This was a popular travel route, built and surveyed by members of the U.S. Army, such as Richard D. Collins, during the 1820s and 1830s. It was also utilized by Native Americans during their forced removal to the West in the same period. After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830 and Arkansas achieved its statehood in 1836, more settlers began to move into the area around Lockhart’s settlement, eventually forming the Saline Township. William Lockhart was given permission to operate a toll bridge there by the Territorial Legislature in 1831.
In 1987, the U.S. Congress enacted a law stating that all state highway departments had to examine their older bridges and determine whether or not they were eligible for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The Old River Bridge was evaluated and placed on the register on September 15, 1977.
The Old River Bridge fell into disrepair by the late twentieth century. In 1974, a truck carrying concrete blocks damaged the bridge’s wooden platform, and local officials decommissioned the bridge. Since then, access to the area around the bridge has been restricted by the City of Benton and the Rock Island and Missouri Pacific Railroad, which has a bridge located directly next to its predecessor. Concrete barriers blocked cars from entering, but it remained a common fishing spot for local residents despite the barriers.
The remains of the Old River Bridge and the area around it are considered historic landmarks by Saline County residents. Malvern (Hot Spring County) native, actor, writer, and director Billy Bob Thornton featured the Old River Bridge at several key moments in his 1996 film Sling Blade, including one shot from underneath it while Thornton’s character, Karl Childers, ponders his next move. A poster for the film features a silhouette of the bridge, with Childers standing at its center.
Benton residents wanted to restore the bridge and its grounds, but no one had succeeded in doing so until a grassroots organization was formed around 2008 by a group of local business owners and politicians. Bill White, owner of White’s Furniture in Benton, donated five acres of land he owned around the Old River Bridge, and five more acres were purchased for a new regional park to be built at the end of River Street. The Saline Crossing Regional Park and Recreational Area, Inc., led by Benton resident Lynn Moore, was formed with the goal of preserving and restoring the Old River Bridge and turning its grounds into a regional park. The county was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Federal Transportation Alternatives Program, and the Arkansas Department of Transportation also took part in the process. The bridge will eventually be disassembled, evaluated, restored, and reassembled. The group began work on the grounds, and in March 2018 it was announced that enough grant money had been raised to undertake the first three of four planned phases of restoration. Descendants of William Lockhart in Ohio were selected for the bridge restoration, and the disassembly was completed later that year.
For additional information:
Bryan, Wayne. “Bridge Advocate to Lead Saline Caravan.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 3, 2011. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2011/mar/03/bridge-advocate-lead-saline-caravan/ (accessed September 15, 2020).
Chapel, Dan, and Sandra Taylor. “Old River Bridge.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/SA0019.nr.pdf (accessed September 15, 2020).
Hibblen, Michael. “Saline County Gets $500,000 Grant to Restore Historic Bridge.” UALR Public Radio. December 14, 2015. http://ualrpublicradio.org/post/saline-county-gets-500000-grant-restore-historic-bridge (accessed September 15, 2020).
Miller, Jaimie. “New Life for the Old River Bridge.” Saline County Lifestyles, January 25, 2016. http://www.salinecountylifestyles.com/urban/new-life-for-the-old-river-bridge/ (accessed September 15, 2020).
Perry, Sarah. “Efforts to Restore River Bridge Set to Begin.” Saline Courier, March 27, 2018.
———. “Strong Connection.” Saline Courtier, March 27, 2018, pp. 1–2.
Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreation Area, Inc. http://www.salinecrossing.com/ (accessed September 15, 2020).
Cody Lynn Berry
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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