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Hundreds turn out for dedication of Clinton Presidential Park Bridge

Rock Island Clinton Presidential Park Bridge Bill Clinton
Michael Hibblen
Former President Bill Clinton speaks during a dedication ceremony Friday to mark the long-awaited completion of work to renovate a former Rock Island Railroad bridge into a span that completes the Arkansas River Trail.

Former President Bill Clinton led a dedication ceremony Friday in Little Rock for a new $10.5 million pedestrian and cycling pathway over the Arkansas River, which was built inside a former railroad bridge. He was joined by his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, daughter Chelsea, and the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

"This bridge is important because first, it keeps the promise we made," Clinton told the crowd. "We came up with the money that turned out to be two-and-a-half times what the original estimate was to complete this trail loop. It’s important. I’m proud of it."

It was originally hoped that work to renovate the bridge, which was built in 1899, would be completed in time for the dedication of the presidential library in 2004. But increasing costs led to it being repeatedly delayed.

Hundreds of cyclists, including Chuck Hitt of Little Rock, brought their bikes to Friday’s dedication to be among the first to cross it.

"We’ve been waiting on the opening of this bridge for a long time," Hitt said. "I think it’s a great thing for the community and I just love the way it’s going to open up more areas for bike riding."

The bridge will serve as the eastern end of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail. It was only open for walkers and cyclists a few hours on Friday. The bridge officially opens to the public on Sunday.

Clinton described the bridge as a symbol of harmony and contrasted it with the divisions in politics today.

"All the possibilities are there, we just have to do the right things. And just like this bridge, we have to do them in a way that brings us together, not drives us apart. All that I learned from you," Clinton said.

The steel bridge was built in 1899 by the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad, which was taken over in 1902 by the Rock Island Railroad. It was part of a major rail line linking Memphis, Tennessee and Tucumcari, New Mexico until the Rock Island was shut down in 1980.

At one point there was a plan for the bridge, which ended up being owned by Union Pacific Railroad, to be torn down. But the leaders of Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County met with the railroad in 1995, convincing executives to mothball the structure in anticipation of the revitalization of the cities' downtown areas.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.