Ceremony To Begin Renovations Of Former Rock Island Bridge Over Arkansas River

May 28, 2010

Includes personal reflections by KUAR's Michael Hibblen.

Work is finally getting underway to renovate the 111-year-old Rock Island Bridge adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. Former President Bill Clinton is to lead a groundbreaking ceremony Friday morning at the bridge, which at one time was slated to be torn down.

The pledge to renovate the railroad bridge was made nine years ago, but beginning the work was repeatedly delayed, prompting some to wonder if it ever would happen. Now, after securing funding from numerous sources, the $10.5 million project is finally ready to get underway.

“We are standing at the foot on the south side of the Rock Island Bridge, now known as the Clinton Park Bridge.  It was renamed last week by Little Rock City Board of Directors," said Clinton Foundation spokesman Jordan Johnson.

It will serve as the eastern end of the 14 mile river trial.

“This will be a ramped pedestrian bridge, completely ADA compliant," said Jordan.  "We're looking at the trusses here and there will be, in essence, a bridge built inside the existing structure.  So we're going to preserve the existing structure, but also build a footpath through it that will level off at the lift span and then gradually go back down to the North Little Rock side."

The bridge was completed in 1899 as part of the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf railroad, which would be absorbed a few years later by the Rock Island.

For seven decades it was extremely busy and probably had millions of people pass through it when the railroad ran passenger trains.  But after several years in bankruptcy, the Rock Island was shut down in 1980.

For me growing up in North Little Rock, I remember being struck by the realization that trains were no longer rolling across.

In 1989 as part of a high school research paper on the Rock Island, I wrote to Union Pacific, which ended up acquiring the bridge. It wrote back that because it had two other bridges in Little Rock, it would be tearing it down, with the lift span to be used on a bridge in Washington State.

Worried that time was running out, that's when I started trespassing on the bridge, to get a good look at it before it was gone. 

At that time the area that is today the Clinton Presidential Center was essentially a large homeless camp. The old train station was boarded up and the bridge was extensively vandalized, with wiring and machinery stripped out.

Over the span of five years through the mid-1990s, I regularly came out to the bridge to photograph it.  I learned where there were internal ladders within the towers that I could use to climb up to the lift span and the machinery house at the top of the span.

It was pretty scary because the railroad ties were torn out in spots, guard rails were broken and you never knew if you might encounter someone on the bridge.

But in 1995 there was a proposal for what was called the River Project, which eventually became what is today Little Rock's River Market area. Part of the project included preserving the Rock Island Bridge. That year I spoke with then-Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily for a program on KUAR about his efforts to keep Union Pacific from tearing it down.

“Mayor (Pat) Hayes from North Little Rock, myself and County Judge (Buddy) Villines have scheduled a flight to Omaha in early August to meet with the executives of the railroad in order to be able to discuss that," Daily said in July 1995.

"Early conversations indicate the only reason they're wanting to tear it down is because they're not using it and therefore there's some liability exposure and we're going to offer them some ways for us to be able to take over that bridge."

Their efforts would be successful, with the city eventually taking possession of the bridge, which was incorporated into Clinton's presidential library.

Clinton Foundation Spokesman Jordan Johnson said it is in surprisingly good shape.

"They don't make bridges like this anymore," Johnson said.  "For over two decades of non-use, it structurally has remained very sound.  We've had numerous testing done on the bridge.  Structural engineering, testing even the little bolts and it checked out just fine.  It's going to be extremely safe and can withstand the load that we're going to put in the bridge from the concrete and steel."

As work gets underway, North Little Rock officials are working to finalize what will be on that side of the bridge.

"We're acquiring some property that's going to make the north end a whole lot better than perhaps it was originally envisioned," said North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hayes.

"The opportunities for us to be able to do things on our side of the river are exceptional because of the fact that we've got a lot of land around there that can be used for a variety of things that would be good for the city in moving its urban development forward.  So it's a big step.  It's been a long time coming," Hayes said.

After Monday's groundbreaking, the real structural work is to begin in July, with officials hoping it can be completed and open to the public by this time next year.