A $500,000 grant will allow work to begin restoring the second-oldest bridge still standing in Arkansas, which crosses the Saline River in Benton. It's hoped it will eventually be part of an extensive cycling and pedestrian trail between Little Rock and Hot Springs.
Built in 1891, the Old River Bridge today is little more than a rusted metal frame.
U.S. Rep. French Hill (R-Little Rock) joined the county judges from Saline and Garland counties and the director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department at the site Monday to formally announce the awarding of the grant.
Saline County Judge Jeff Arey noted its historic location.
"A couple hundred years ago, 1815, William S. Lockhart and his family settled on the banks of this river right here at this Saline crossing. The crossing was a gateway to the southwest and that’s where everybody came to go to the southwest part of the country," he said.
The grant will only cover the first steps to make the bridge usable. Officials don't have a final cost estimate.
The plan calls for cranes to lower the bridge to the ground in two pieces for the work to be done. Piers supporting the structure will have to be replaced.
The 260-foot long one lane bridge for vehicular traffic has been closed since its flooring was damaged in 1974. Local leaders have long wanted to restore it and in recent years it has been part of plans to build the pedestrian and cycling trail.
Garland County Judge Rick Davis hopes this will jump start that project, which is named for the original trail taken by pioneers who traveled west.
"This is a great start to the dream of the Southwest Trail and so it’s good to see this progressing forward and that this is the first step to the beginning and hopefully we’ll keep this movement going and eventually will see the completion of the Southwest Trail from Hot Springs to Little Rock," Davis said.
The trail plan also includes acquiring the right of way of unused railroad tracks once operated by the Rock Island and Missouri Pacific. In recent years abandoned rail lines have been converted into trails elsewhere in the country, which are ideal because of gradual curves and inclines. An extensive study looking into the proposed trail can be read here.
Rep. Hill supported the grant to begin restoration of the bridge, with money coming from a federal program advocating alternatives to cars.
"This is the heart of our Civil War history along the Southwest Trail and to me the judges’ vision of building a pedestrian, recreational trail from Little Rock to the heart of Hot Springs National Park is a great, long-term strategy," Hill said.
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and the list of Most Endangered Places in Arkansas. The bridge is also noteworthy for its use in the 1996 movie Sling Blade, which was set in Arkansas.