THE TIES THAT BIND
MEMPHIS DAILY NEWS | Bill Dries
When Big River Crossing was about to open a year ago, Doug Carpenter was asked often where the Tennessee-Arkansas state line is over the Mississippi River.
His marketing firm DCA has overseen publicity for the crossing from concept through construction, so he has learned much about the history of the Harahan Bridge and the mighty river below it. But the stateline wasn't marked
Instead of giving complex answers to a question that has been the subject of litigation, he tells inquirers to look for the new sign on a barrier wall that separates the boardwalk from the Union Pacific railroad right of way.
“On the Google map, that is actually the state line,” Carpenter said. “It’s been photographed quite a bit.”
Counters on both ends of the pedestrian and bicycle overpass on the Harahan Bridge show more than 250,000 have biked and walked the Big River Crossing in a year’s time. The sensors also show that about 85 percent of those crossing have been on foot and 15 percent on bicycle, with Saturdays and Sundays the busiest days.
The view on the Arkansas side suggests there is still work underway on that end of the crossing, but the heavy machinery below the Arkansas landing has nothing to do with Big River Crossing or the Delta Regional River Park – the six-mile loop of flood plain trails north of the overpass.
It is a major renovation of the middle of the three bridges across the river – the BNSF railroad bridge, known as the Frisco Bridge.
A project to replace the long-standing stone bridge supports on the Frisco coincided with an accelerated construction schedule for Big River Crossing and is about to wrap up.
“We’ll be able to do more and more down at the Arkansas landing because we were so limited with all of the equipment from the rail project there,” said Jim Jackson, tourism director for the city of West Memphis. “It’s just about over with. A year after the opening we are in pretty good shape down there and getting more and more people who want to do a food truck or concessions there.”
The large stones and boulders that once supported the Frisco Bridge are showing up as markers in the river park. They also line a separate spur trail that introduces the park, but are not part of the park loop itself.
The loop runs below Big River Crossing and goes straight to the river bank in the shadow of the bridges, following a path that railroad police patrolled and barred the public from until recently. The trail was created with private funding.
At the one-year mark, the six-mile loop of trails on the Arkansas flood plain between the Harahan and Hernando DeSoto bridges is mostly ready as a destination for those making the crossing.
“This is a proof concept,” said Paul Luker, the West Memphis director of planning and development, as he walked the county roads that, combined with easements from some but not all of the farmers who own the land, make up the Delta Regional River Park.
“A good portion of it is on county road right of way where it is a shared use (with cars and farm equipment.) But then there’s a trail that spurs off of that county road and goes to the bank of the river and goes north along the bank of the river under I-40 and ties back into Robinson Road, which is a county road,” Luker said. “We wish it was completed. But we are going to have to go with it like it is for right now. Working around the railroad and a wet summer has made it a little bit slower than we thought. We are a lot further along than we ever thought we would be.”
The trail loop offers four vistas alongside the Mississippi River with views of the Downtown Memphis skyline. Past that, the trail takes riders and walkers along a tree line and paths into the Dacus Lake area. The tree line is a reminder of the woodlands that once carpeted the entire area up to the river.
MIGHTY DIFFERENT SIDES
The public debut of the trail system, which is already being used, is the Oct. 21 Big River Crossing Half Marathon and 5K.
Carpenter said the wait has been worth it for the development of an area that most Memphians never see except as a flat backdrop looking west beyond the levee that made the city of West Memphis possible.
“It’s a great bike ride,” he said. “It’s really wide and it is a completely different view of the river and the city. I think that is going to help people to go further.”
Up to this point, what has been next for most of those biking about three more miles to the west is Pancho’s, the original location of the Mexican restaurant known for its cheese dip, which is now sold in stores in the region.
Pancho’s general manager Tim Wallace estimates the West Memphis location has seen a 10 percent increase in business in the year Big River Crossing has been open. It helps that the Big River Trail’s western trailhead is directly across Broadway Avenue from Pancho’s.
“Anybody that comes across the bridge is usually going to stop in,” he said. “Recently we did some decorating of the front to accommodate bike racks. Some people who come across have high-end bikes. We let them roll them inside if they don’t feel comfortable locking them up outside. We want to give the people on the bikes anything we can. We want the hospitality out there for them.”
That includes being a gathering point for the annual Arkansas Flatlander bike ride and its accompanying Gravel Grinder ride in late September onto the system of levee trails further west and south into Crittenden County.
In March, West Memphis will host the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism, a long-running event that tourism director Jackson intends to use to maximum effect.
“They are going to see what we’ve done over here with the bridge,” he said. “Mountain bikes are getting to be really big in northwest Arkansas. They are kind of becoming the destination over there. But the whole cycling thing is kind of statewide.”
Jackson plans to get state officials and tourism leaders from other parts of the state on bikes during the gathering.
Businesses on Broadway – West Memphis’s version of Main Street – remain cautious beyond Pancho’s and the newly opened C.J.’s, which occupies an existing building but recently added an outdoor patio to its blues vibe and atmosphere.
“Part of the plan was the whole entrepreneurship of the east end of town once people started coming over,” Jackson said. “We are literally seeing more and more cyclists in town, more than just the novice cyclist as far as the way they are dressed. … They want a destination ride. They want something cold to drink when they get there.”
Thus far, the bike racks are the most visible sign of a change along Broadway. Luker says more of a change will take time as West Memphis businesses further west on Broadway remain cautious.
“They are starting to look at it,” he said. “But we haven’t gotten to the tipping point yet. For anybody to go down and build something new or open something new that wasn’t there previously, that hasn’t happened.”
Pancho’s is a sort of cultural capital for the east end of Broadway that was the original gateway across the river before the larger Hernando DeSoto Bridge, aka “the new bridge,” opened in the early 1970s to the north.
Pancho’s doesn’t just look like a roadside restaurant that existed before chain restaurants took over America’s highways and then interstates, it was founded in the 1950s on land that was once home to the Plantation Inn – a rhythm and blues live music landmark now remembered with memorabilia inside Pancho’s and a plaque in the parking lot. It was founded by Plantation Inn creator Morris Berger after a family trip to Mexico.
“You step back in time when you walk in there,” Wallace said. “Everything is original and everything is the same and people love it.”
Also in the area is Riverside International Speedway, a quarter-mile oval racetrack with a gumbo surface – dirt with some paving elements – open since 1949. A sign at the entrance along Legion Road refers to it as “The Big Ditch.” It is located across the road from American Legion Post #53 that offers Kommander Karaoke Friday nights and bingo on Monday nights.
South of that are granaries that are a major part of the economy of West Memphis. Grain operators share the roads with bikers at times, including during the Arkansas Flatlander ride.
“The only complaint I had this year wasn’t so much the grain trucks but the wind,” Jackson said. “We have three major granaries over here now – all of the grain from eastern Arkansas. That’s a good problem to have and it just happens to be that time of the year. We can’t control wind. We can’t control the soybeans and when they are ready to cut.”
Jackson is among the leaders involved in West Memphis Port improvements on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River south of the Harahan.
THE MEMPHIS “RIVERLINE”
The Memphis side of Big River Crossing is also seeing some changes. Visitors intrigued about the crossing ask the most basic question first – how do I get there?
“That’s probably the No. 1 question we get,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t have all of the infrastructure.”
Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corp., hears the same thing Luker and Jackson are hearing on the other side of the river. “Where do I go from here?”
On the Memphis side, the answer to that question is what he and other city leaders are calling “RiverLine” – the riverside pathway from Confluence Park on Mud Island’s north end to Big River Crossing. Confluence Park marks the westernmost point of the Wolf River Greenway that spans almost the entire county.
“A lot of this is already there. People don’t know it’s there,” Lendermon told Memphis City Council members last month. “They don’t know it’s connected.”
So the city will begin marking the route and its multiple paths with yellow concrete spheres placed every eighth of a mile. Signs that use the yellow sphere as a symbol also will be erected along the paths. The city also plans a decluttering of other signs that have accumulated over several years, to reduce potential confusion.
“Each of these paths will be identified,” Lendermon said. “When you are on the Greenbelt, you will know that eventually it’s connected to the Cobblestones and that’s connected to Tom Lee Park.”
There will be a consistent surface with RiverLine signage.
“It makes people feel comfortable, like they should be there,” Lendermon said of the plans. “But it’s also really not visible from any residential structure anywhere – really nowhere except from the walkway itself.”
The most critical part of the RiverLine, by Lendermon’s definition, is Riverside Drive.
“I think we have to slow down traffic on Riverside Drive somehow,” he told council members. “Just rest assured, no one with the RDC is having any discussions about closing Riverside Drive or even suggests or supports that.”
That’s a reference to a year-long trial period during the administration of Mayor A C Wharton Jr. when the southbound lanes of Riverside from Beale Street to Georgia Avenue were closed to all auto traffic.
The RiverLine plans to do what those critical of closing of Riverside’s southbound lanes suggested – keep bicycle and foot traffic on the walkways of Tom Lee Park.
The city is considering taking out the median strip along Riverside Drive to make the street a better surface for festivals, including the Memphis In May International Festival, which uses the park three of the four weeks of May.
“The median in the middle of the roadway just really messes it up for use of Memphis In May or any other festival,” Lendermon said.
The Memphis side, with its huge festivals and proximity to larger entertainment venues and nightclubs on and around Beale Street, provides a bright contrast to the rural trails and river bottoms that draw outdoors enthusiasts and bicyclists to the West Memphis side, which will be at river level at least once during every year, guaranteeing it will always be a natural area.
The connection between the two different worlds is through decidedly blue-collar gateways where the railroads still run.
Pancho’s Wallace, whose company does business on both sides of the river, sees a connection among the disparate elements of nature, railroads, granaries and brewpubs and always a river view.
“West Memphis and Memphis – they kind of need each other,” he said. “That bridge is great. It’s going to bridge the gap between the two.”