When was the last time you crossed a bridge and paid attention to it? Really paid attention? It's probably been a while. Most times we tend to tune out bridges. But to the early settlers and later residents of Northwest Arkansas, bridges were important. They opened up new areas of settlement, connected communities, allowed goods to be traded and marketed, and offered a safer, easier means of travel.
In order to cross a river or creek in the early days, residents established fords (low-water crossings) to walk across or drive a horse and buggy through. Enterprising individuals set up ferries, floating travelers and their wagons across a stream for a fee. Swinging footbridges were also built, but they weren't for the faint of heart.
Passage through the hills was equally daunting. In order to go from one mountain to the next folks walked or rode up and down steep slopes, along narrow, rocky, rutted roads. It wasn't a matter of taking the shortest, straightest path, but of following the easiest trail.
Big bridges were expensive, so whether directly or indirectly, they had to be profitable and meet a well-established need. Railroads needed them to further their business interests. Counties and states needed them for commerce and government.
The era of big bridges came to Northwest Arkansas in the early 1880s with the coming of the railroad, which brought new opportunities for commerce. A growing economy led to a growing population. Both meant progress and progress meant bridges. The railroad helped out there as well, transporting construction materials. It would have been almost impossible to bring huge, heavy steel girders by oxcart over long distances through rugged hills.
Besides the obvious aspect of travel and commerce, public safety is also a concern. Sometimes bridges fail and need to be rebuilt. Other times a new need is defined. In 2002 an overpass was built over the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks in Gravette. The project resulted from a terrible incident—a man died on the way to the emergency room when a stalled train blocked traffic.
At one time bridges played a big role in the community. Folks posed on them for photographs, stood on them to watch river baptisms, and fished from them. Bridges were used to make statements too, often with tragic consequences. In 1923 striking workers on the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad (M&NA) burned eight bridges near Eureka Springs and Harrison.
A striking M&NA employee was later hanged from the Crooked Creek bridge, probably in retaliation.
Today the bridges of Northwest Arkansas are as important as ever. New ones are being built to meet increasing transportation demands. But some of the grand old bridges are in trouble. High maintenance and restoration costs have endangered many of them including the War Eagle bridge near Rogers and the "Little Golden Gate" bridge by Beaver. So far preservation-minded folk have managed to convince officials of the need keep to them, but for how long?
Bridge collapse on Highway 112 over Clear Creek at Greathouse Springs (Washington County), July 31, 1974. Springdale News Collection (SN 7-31-1974)
In 2001 the citizens of Wyman Township near Fayetteville faced a painful decision—keep their historic bridge or replace it with a new one. Safety was a concern, as was money to preserve the old bridge. It might have been possible to build the new bridge nearby and still keep the old bridge, but it meant a longer delay in building the new structure. In the end, the bridge was torn down.