|THE OXFORD AMERICAN|
|Old Man Bridge|
|A new bridge promises change in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. But will it ever be built?|
It's never been good luck to be the seat of justice of Desha County, Arkansas. Behold today's Arkansas City—beat-up, broken-down, devoid of the trappings every county seat deserves. No four-lane road. No Chinese restaurant. No muffler shop. No Wal-Mart. There is a newly renovated county courthouse (if county courthouses are your thing) and, for the well-guided visitor with a generous imagination, the shabby remnants of great things long gone.
"People pulled their steamboats up there and you could walk right off the river, into town," said Mark McElroy, the Desha County Judge, driving along the gravel road atop the levee. "They had gambling houses and hotels. This was sin city, man!" It was spring, fishing poles and tackle boxes bounced around the back of his SUV. The Judge, a part-time actor and river enthusiast, wore a trimmed beard and jeans. He pointed out the old opera house, barn-shaped, abandoned, and in need of a fresh coat of paint; the trackless railbed scars of the Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railroad; and the old drunk tank, which doesn't have a ceiling and never did. "That old jail there," Judge McElroy said, "Miss Dorothy said on Sunday you went to church you could hear the drunks, Uuuuurgh. They'd fill it up, too."
"That would be Dorothy Moore," said Charlotte Schexnayder, who was riding shotgun. "She's ninety-four and really one of the anchors of this county." Schexnayder, who is eighty and a pillar of the community herself, was filling in historical details. "Dorothy received her high-school diploma from a rowboat, if you can believe it. They rowed her up to the second floor of the building, and the superintendent handed her diploma through the window." McElroy drew our attention to a monument the size of a small gravestone halfway down the levee that marked its former height. A historical sign nearby explained the rowboat commencement: the flood of 1927 was the greatest disaster ever suffered by the county…four to thirty feet of water in April, parts remaining until summer… a drought and the depression of the 1930s followed the flood. years were required for the county to recover.
"Recover" is a term used loosely here. The flood, which inundated large portions of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, devastated the agricultural economy, encouraged the migration of black workers to Northern cities, and altered permanently the politics and culture of the South. In the decades since the Depression, more subtle events—the consolidation and mechanization of farming, the decline of railroads, the gradual urbanization of America—have also taken their toll. Desha County may have recovered from the flood per se, but its population today is three-quarters what it was in 1926, the year before the flood.
A still more terrible fact, not mentioned on the sign but alluded to by the boarded-up windows and trailer homes and junked cars nearby, is that Arkansas City, the county seat, never recovered at all: When the levee broke upstream, the deluge cut a channel that changed the course of the river, and by the time the waters finally receded that summer, the Mississippi lay two miles to the east, and the once rollicking river town found itself landlocked. On the other side of the levee today sit the cypress trees and swampy wetlands of an oxbow lake named Kate Adams, in honor of a popular paddleboat from Memphis that used to dock there, back when "there" was the river. In its heyday, Arkansas City teemed with some fifteen thousand people. Today there are 589.
Arkansas City was the up-and-coming railroad town, a terminus on the river, when the citizens of Desha County voted to make it their county seat in 1879. The previous seat, a whistle-stop called Watson's Station, had been picked five years before, but it flooded too frequently, and the railroad pulled out. The original county seat, Napoleon, sat fifteen miles north, where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi—the very confluence, Mark Twain points out in his autobiographical book Life on the Mississippi, where "three out of the four memorable events connected with the discovery and exploration of the mighty river occurred, by accident, in one and the same place." In 1682, Robert LaSalle staked his cross into the ground there, claiming both rivers and their lands for France. Nine years before, in 1673, the less presumptuous Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, having been warned of hostile Indians and Spanish explorers, ended their expedition there, and paddled back to Canada. And in 1542, Hernando DeSoto became the first white man to see the Mississippi River, keeled over on its banks, and was buried—all at the future site of Napoleon, Arkansas.
By the time Mark Twain came through on a steamboat sometime around 1875, Napoleon had drowned: "It was an astonishing thing to see the Mississippi rolling between unpeopled shores and straight over the spot where I used to see a good big self-complacent town twenty years ago. Town that was county-seat of a great and important county…town of innumerable fights—an inquest every day; town where I had used to know the prettiest girl…a town no more—swallowed up, vanished, gone to feed the fishes."
"Napoleon just fell, block by block, into the meandering river," Schexnayder said wistfully as we drove out of town along the levee. Locals assert, perhaps spitefully, that it was the trenches dug by Yankee occupiers during the Civil War that hastened the erosion of Napoleon's banks. But the point is more biblical than that: The river giveth, and the river taketh away. "Literally, the townspeople stood and watched it just decay into the river."
A little farther along, next to a small white ranch house in a meadow full of cows, McElroy came to a stop. "Now, this is the right-of-way line right here," he said, motioning out the windshield, "where Interstate 69 is supposed to come through. The Great River Bridge will start right here, at this levee, and go up and all the way across to the levee on the Mississippi side."
Here, finally, was what McElroy and Schexnayder wanted to show me. According to state and federal plans, this pasture by the river, thirty miles from the nearest bridge, and ten miles from the nearest four-lane road, will someday play host to I-69, a superhighway that will run from the Canadian border in Michigan to the Mexican border in Texas. Halfway between, near Arkansas City and the submerged site of Napoleon, the new "NAFTA highway" will cross the country's original north-south thoroughfare, the Mississippi River. And because everything the river and the railroad once brought to a town—trade, work, wealth, bustle—comes today on concrete, community leaders like Schexnayder believe this highway is the rope the Delta needs to pull itself up.
McElroy drove us to the riverbank. There had been rain earlier in the day, and it was still gray out—the river and the sky—but the trees along the Mississippi were turning green. Schexnayder apologized. There wasn't much to look at. But we parked anyway and got out. Schexnayder took my picture. I took Schexnayder's picture. We took pictures of a barge motoring up the river. She pointed to the patch of horizon that she had spent twenty years trying to fill, and I tried to imagine what she could already see—a huge, modern, four-lane highway bridge bustling with tourists and trucks and commerce. A new river reaching across the old one. A concrete river. A river that never moves away.
The Great River Bridge, which the state legislatures of Mississippi and Arkansas have resolved shall be named the Charles W. Dean Memorial Bridge, will be just over four and a quarter miles long. The river, bank to bank, is a little less than one mile wide at the crossing, but it is prudent for a bridge to soar levee to levee as if everything between were rolling water. Because someday it will be.
Charles W. Dean, the civ il engineer who first conceived of the bridge, died rather suddenly of lung cancer in 1998, at the age of seventy. His whole life had been intimately tied to the river. Dean spent the flood of 1927 in the womb, and as the waters rose dangerously high that spring, his grandfather, a county sheriff in Shaw, Mississippi, organized patrols to guard the levee against sabotage. It seemed inevitable that the river would break through somewhere, and it was the job of nervous, armed men on both banks to make sure that it was God, or fate, or flimsy engineering—not an armful of dynamite—that decided where.
By the time Dean was born, in December of that year, the waters were gone, and so were his chances for an aristocratic life. The Dean family owned the Buckshot Plantation near Shaw, but the flood and the Depression would wipe them out. But Dean liked hard work, and knew how to make friends. At the University of Mississippi, where he studied engineering, Dean was elected student body president, president of his fraternity (Kappa Sigma), president of his graduating class, president of the National Leadership Honors Society chapter, president of the Ole Miss Hall of Fame, and captain of the varsity football team. Schexnayder, who calls Dean the consummate Southern Gentleman, loves the oft-told story of a big game when Dean, a tight end, got injured. "In the first half, Charles got knocked out, and they had to take him to the hospital to work on him," she says, in gleeful disbelief. "And his brother appeared at halftime and said, "Boy, get up! We've got to have you this second half!' And Charles got up off the emergency room table, and went and played the second half!"
Dean was a father of three, a Boy Scout troop leader, and a faithful churchgoer. And, like any Southern gentleman, he liked to have a good time. There are countless stories of him drinking whiskey at a White House reception, or lunching decadently at Windows on the World in New York City, or chaperoning American beauty queens on a trip to Tokyo. Throughout his lifetime, Dean's congeniality and go-getting won him a web of influential friends, and his expertise in the area of river transportation and economic development made him a coveted expert abroad. He consulted in Japan, Korea, England, Belgium, Germany, and Mexico, and in 1983 the U.S. State Department sent Dean to the People's Republic of China, only recently opened to Westerners at the time, to advise them on managing and developing their river systems.
At home, a large part of Dean's work involved taming the Mississippi, either by controlling its consequences or by reaping its benefits. During the 1970s and '80s, Dean devised a new drainage system for the town of Cleveland, Mississippi, that solved a decades-old flooding problem, and he lead the construction—and, more importantly, the politics—of an inland shipping port in nearby Rosedale, a facility that has arguably saved that community from extinction.
Ancil Cox also grew up in Shaw, and played peewee football with Dean. The two were roommates in college, and sidekicks thereafter. Cox, too, moved to Cleveland after Ole Miss. He opened a law practice and loyally performed pro bono legal work for Charles's civic projects. "It was just one of those things you do," he told me. "Charles didn't say, 'Come do this for nothing.' He just said, 'Let's do it.' And we did it." Cox's wood-paneled office in downtown Cleve-land is overflowing with topographical maps and printed studies for I-69 and the Great River Bridge. On the wall just above his chair is an artist's rendition of the port of Rosedale, drawn thirty years ago when Charles Dean was the only one who could see it. "Most of the time Charles came through with what he said he would do," Cox said. "He was conscientious, and not just full of bull."
In 1984, after the port was completed, Dean proposed an even grander scheme. There was no bridge for almost fifty miles north or south of Cleveland. If a two-lane highway and railroad bridge could be built across the Mississippi, he thought, it would open the entire Delta, on both sides of the river, to badly needed economic opportunity. This was eight years before NAFTA, well before the combined mid-South clout of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Delay, and Trent Lott would advance the idea of I-69. Charles Dean wasn't thinking in terms of international trade corridors. He wanted, quite simply, to get to the other side.
"I don't know how well you know the Mississippi River, but it's a big river," Cox said. "You don't go out there in your little boat and go across to visit Aunt Nellie—it's too big for that. So we've always been split off from each other by the river. My grandmother grew up in Rosedale back in the late 1880s and I never heard her ever mention visiting people in Arkansas. She'd ride the Kate Adams to Memphis or down south, but they never went across." Cox remembers his own childhood trips to Memphis, a five-hour drive up the gravel Highway 61. "I can remember sitting there eating in the Peabody Hotel and being astounded when I saw a lady light a cigarette at another table," Cox said. "It's funny how you remember little things. My mother smoked, but not out in public like that. I guess that's what blew my mind. Like the first time I was sitting in a restaurant with my dad and I saw a lady have a highball at noon."
Memphis had it all: rails, rivers, roads, ladies smoking and boozing in lush hotels. But the very same river that brought Memphis prosperity and sophistication kept Cleveland detached from the West. Not every place needs to be Memphis, but if you're no place with no port and no bridge, then that mighty, majestic Mississippi might as well be the Great Wall of China.
Though Charles Dean was an engineer, he did not design his eponymous bridge. Large-scale public projects like this one are no longer the work of visionary independent builders, but of huge construction conglomerates that like to trace their histories back to visionary independent builders. In this case, it is the HNTB Corporation, a Kansas City firm that traces its roots to the 1890s and the bridge pioneer Dr. John Alexander Low Waddell, whose major design contribution was the large-scale, high-clearance, vertical-lift bridge. Although HNTB branched out to develop airports, sports stadiums, and military facilities, it still designs roadways (including the New Jersey Turnpike) and has designed hundreds of bridges around the world, including nearly forty over the Mississippi River, such as the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and the US-82 Bridge under construction at Greenville, Mississippi. The Charles W. Dean Memorial Bridge will cost some $500 million, or about $23,000 a foot. Its main navigation channel will stretch 1,520 feet wide, with 685-foot spans on either side. It will be a cable-stayed bridge, with tall towers like a suspension bridge, except that the cables supporting its deck will fan down diagonally from its tall piers, rather than hanging vertically from draped support cables. A cable-stayed bridge has a sharp, angular, and vaguely futuristic look, much less lyrical than the swooping arcs of a suspension bridge. But the beauty of the cable-stayed bridge is in its simplicity and efficiency, factors that made the cable-stayed design so popular in Europe after World War II, when countries had to rebuild their infrastructure quickly and cheaply.
"The concept of a cable-stayed bridge is four or five centuries old, but they didn't have the technology then to build them," Steve Hague, the project manager and lead designer for the bridge, told me. "They're very highly indeterminate structures, and anything you do in one part of the structure affects everything else." More like a spiderweb than a clothesline, the cable-stayed design relies on hundreds of simultaneous mathematical equations—essentially, computer modeling. "Whereas a suspension bridge is a very determinant structure, and fairly simple to calculate. That's why in the 1800s, people like John Roebling could design and build suspension bridges."
John Augustus Roebling's bridges conquered several American rivers, starting with the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh, in 1846, and ending with the East River, in New York, in 1883. Roebling's masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge (called the East River Bridge at the time), finally opened that year for public traffic. Roebling was not there to cross it. He died in 1869, before construction began, from a tetanus infection after a ferry crushed his foot on the Brooklyn waterfront. John's son, Washington Roebling, also an engineer, continued his father's work and saw the bridge to completion. Charles Dean never got to see his bridge either. And as lovely as it would have been for his son, Charles "Chuck" Dean, Jr., to pick up the Great River Bridge project where his father left off, life—and the river—pulled Chuck in other directions. He learned surveying from his father as a teenager, but ultimately chose to work the river as a barge pilot. "I grew up in the '60s. I was kind of a rebel-type person that resented a lot of different things," he told me, unrepentantly. "And I kinda rebelled. And that's life. But my father always told me, 'Son, whatever you do, I will be one hundred percent behind you.'" At his father's request, Chuck tried a year of Junior College. "But I told him, 'Pop, this just isn't for me.'"
The barge pilot and the engineer are the yin and yang of river-tamers, conflicting in complete harmony. Both must possess intimate, detailed knowledge of the river. But where the engineer works the river's hard edges to neutralize it, the pilot yields to its power and follows its turbulent middle. "It's a wild untamed world," Chuck told me. "The Mississippi River is like a woman. She's steady-moving, always changing, never the same."
When the first railroad bridge was built across the Mississippi River, in 1857, and the first steamboat hit that first bridge, the boat went up in flames, and a legal battle ensued. The steamboat operator, supported by river interests, sued the Rock Island Bridge Company, supported by the railroad interests, claiming that the bridge was a dangerous impediment to the rightful navigation of the river. A brilliant attorney from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln—a former river pilot—argued the case for the railroad. Not only was the accident the boat pilot's fault, Lincoln maintained, but the court must recognize that the railroad had as much right to be there as the river. Lincoln's case for economic development and westward expansion won, and not long after, as President, he would call for construction of a transcontinental railroad.
A lot of people—engineers, politicians, environmentalists, consultants—have had a say in where exactly the Great River Bridge should go, and that decision changed a half-dozen times. Chuck, for his part, wished his father had put it in a straightaway. "You don't put it where you've just come out of a bend," he said. "Like the Greenville Bridge. You come steering around a hard, left-hand turn and then you're looking at the bridge. And that's why people hit it all the time."
To get his first-class pilot's license, Chuck took a test where he had to "draw the river—meaning you draw all the lights, the dykes, the revetment, everything in that area. They give you the edge of the river and you fill in everything else—the sailing lines, the banks, the buoys, the lights." Chuck has drawn the river from Vicksburg up to Memphis, the route of the old Kate Adams. He's driven all the way up to St. Paul and all the way down to New Orleans. It never gets boring, or easy. "Even the best of the best get stumped. I've seen pilots that I've been with for twenty-seven years all of a sudden hit a bridge. And it's because they just take their eyes off—they lose concentration or lose focus."
In the old days, the '70s, before cellphones, Chuck would go out for thirty days at a time. It was like being out at sea. The river gets in your blood, he said. You think every trip will be your last, but you always keep going back.
After following his work to Kentucky and Florida, Chuck quit the river a few years ago to spend more time with his wife and seven children. When his father died, Chuck moved with his family back to Cleveland, to help take care of his mother, Martha, and to be closer to his two sisters, Tommicile and Debbie. The ghost of his father is never far away. "Everybody I ever talked to always says that he was like Moses. That's what they referred to him as around here. That was his legacy." As father figure for a whole community, Charles Dean was always deeply concerned by the constant exodus of bright young people from Cleveland, Chuck says, and was always trying to build reasons for them to stay.
"The older I've gotten, the more I see what my Dad's dream was," Chuck told me. "Being back, I look around Cleveland and I see a lot of things that my father did just to make this a better place to live. I look at the walking park in the middle of town," he said, referring to the renovation of an abandoned railroad line in Cleveland's old downtown, which has kept the small Main Street businesses alive. "Back then I would have told you that's not something anyone cares about. But he could visualize things that other people just couldn't imagine. Now I look at it and I say, 'This is something everyone can use—the blacks, the whites. There's nothing separating us. It's for everybody.'"
The sole black member of the Great River Bridge Committee and the sole black member of the National I-69 Coalition, the Reverend Dr. Juniper Yates Trice, has lived in Rosedale, Mississippi, for thirty-five years, but he grew up clear across the state in Verona, Mississippi, a small town you've never heard of that sits just a few miles away from Tupelo, a town you probably have. Tupelo is where a truck driver named Vernon Presley had a son named Elvis in 1935, when J.Y. Trice was fifteen. "Now, Verona is a little older than Tupelo," he explained. "The Ohio Railroad Company went through Tupelo and Verona. Had a stop in both towns. But just a little later, the San Francisco Railroad came, out of Kansas City to Atlanta, through Birmingham. Tupelo was where the two railroad lines crossed. The Bank of Verona moved to Tupelo. It became the Bank of Tupelo. And after that everything started fluxing on Tupelo."
At the end of the Second World War, after some years as a small-town preacher, Trice went for his masters in education. When the Supreme Court ordered an end to segre-gation a decade later, Trice was the principal of the black school in Itawamba County, Mississippi, on the border of Alabama. They absorbed his students into the three white schools in the county and closed his school. So Trice became assistant county superintendent and helped manage the transition. He earned a reputation as a great integrator, and in 1968 he was recruited to Rosedale, a poor Delta community where the mandated changes were causing, as Trice delicately puts it, "some confusion." In fact, the confusion was so great that Bolivar County had closed down its schools, and the community was divided in a heated struggle.
In the turbulent late '60s, while Chuck Dean turned down college to work the river, Trice arrived in Rosedale to find many young blacks malnourished, some living with huge families in small shacks without plumbing. Some lived outside. Trice applied for emergency federal funding, and got some ten million dollars for a new water pump, basic plumbing services, and a start on public housing. By the time he retired from education in 1985, at the age of sixty-five, he was credited for turning the school system, and indeed the community of Rosedale, around. The people of Rosedale promptly elected Trice as their mayor. He served four terms, and retired again in 2001. Today, at eighty-four, Trice serves as the executive director of the Bolivar County Council on Aging, a group that provides services for the disadvantaged of Trice's generation, one of the more important of which is everyday transportation. Through the council, Trice bought a fleet of vans for younger volunteers to use to drive older people to the store, to church, to the bank.
I gave Trice a ride home from work one afternoon in April so he could show me some of his accomplishments. We drove to the port of Rosedale, which he worked on with Dean and Cox, and Trice counted all the things that might not have been were it not for their efforts: grain elevators, truck scales, industrial park, barge shop, steel business, lubrication plant, fertilizer company, and a flock of birds eating spilt seeds off the dusty road. We drove through the Great River Road State Park, which Trice named, which Charles Dean helped him get for Rosedale. He showed me the campgrounds with water and sewer hook-ups for recreational vehicles, which are better than tents, he says, because mosquitoes are a problem by the river, not to mention the occasional wild boar or brown bear.
We drove past a federal housing project he built as mayor, a semi-gated cul-de-sac with a dozen small brick dwellings. He asked me to read aloud the sign at the entrance: THE J.Y TRICE APARTMENTS. A slice of immortality for the Reverend Doctor Mayor, and a decent place to live, it seemed. A few bushes were clearly missing, and no one had done much to spruce up his facade, but still. Trice is in the process of buying the apartments from the government, at which point he will become the landlord and the name won't just be honorary.
The population of Rosedale, which is heavily black, has come a long way, Trice says, but there are still traces of what he calls "plantation syndrome." "The black people here don't have enough involvement to be as enthusiastic as they should about the bridge and I-69," he explained. "What's making the white people so enthusiastic about the project is they've either got land that's gonna be bought by the project, or they see the possibility of putting a business by the project. So economics is the whole crest of the situation. And that's what this highway is, an economic highway."
Many of the Delta towns up toward Memphis have made a concerted effort in the last ten years to attract tourists and their money to the Delta. In Tunica, they've built casinos, the tax revenues from which have turned what was once the poorest county in the country into a paradise for development. An hour south, in Clarksdale, they're doing their best to market the town's blues heritage, while glossing over the oppression and poverty from which the blues were born. Perhaps this is because, as Trice points out, most of the entrepreneurs—with the exception of the actor Morgan Freeman, who co-owns the biggest club and the nicest restaurant in Clarksdale—are white.
"The people in the Delta are getting excited about I-69 because they see it's a new way to make new money," Trice said. "That's the bottom line. The black people haven't learned to appreciate that. It's gonna be some easy money in this for the whites who are really excited about it. So when we have our public hearings, it's mostly whites are the ones that come out." Trice sits on the board of the First National Bank of Rosedale, which would stand to gain from any economic development in the region. But at eighty-four, it seems unlikely that Trice is motivated by greed. He's gone to all the public meetings about the port, the bridge, and the highway, and has taken the trips with Charles Dean and Ancil Cox and Charlotte Schexnayder to Memphis and Washington. Like the rest of them, he wants progress; and like them, he believes that progress can be built, no matter who profits first.
As we neared his house, Trice began rattling off for me the races of the people in the homes we passed, emphasizing, I think, that one can't always tell from the outside: "Those apartment buildings you see over there, we just put them in three years ago. Black folk live in those houses. That's the last thing I built. We call these self-help projects. Turn here. This is where most of the whites lived. Now a Chinaman lives in that house. And a black boy lives in this house. That house sits back yonder, set back, that's what the farmers were living in. White folk were living in all these houses here. Black living in them now. White folk live in these houses. White lived in these houses but black live in these houses now. Black live in this house. The other two here, white live in. Now, this is my house. Pull in here. At one time this was a doctor's house. A white doctor's house."
Charlotte Schexnayder is an activist, a doer, an optimist, and after fifty years of living in Desha County, through times of great transition and decline, she can tell you for certain why her town of Dumas is still on its feet. "We had a vision that we were gonna be beyond the other small towns. We were gonna have a nice little industrial district," she said in her unwavering alto. We sat in her living room, the walls of which were covered with certificates and honors and photos. Just above the couch, Schexnayder had hung a framed needlepoint sampler: do not follow where the path may lead. go where there is no path, and leave a trail! "When the town needed $140,000 to buy an industrial park in the early 1960s, people went door-to-door. And if you didn't have the money to pledge, you borrowed the money and pledged it. It took Melvin and me three years to pay back $3,000. And we can laugh about it now. But that's the kind of thing. We had a barber here who had $400 in his checking account, and he gave $200. The people are the reason places grow. The people, and their determination."
In 1984, Schexnayder was the longtime editor of the Dumas Clarion and had just been elected State Representative in the spring primary (she was a Democrat, and therefore unopposed in the general election) when she received a letter from the Dumas County Chamber of Commerce asking if she would be interested in meeting with an engineer from across the river regarding a possible bridge connecting his impoverished county to hers. She was, in fact, tremendously interested, and in a matter of days, Charles Dean and Ancil Cox and J.Y. Trice showed up in nearby McGehee to meet Schexnayder and her Arkansas colleagues. Dean brought big maps, and all parties could see from those maps exactly how close they all lived to one another, and yet how far they'd had to travel to meet. After the meeting, they drove out and looked at the river together and agreed that they had a big wall between them, and that a bridge would be a very big deal indeed.
From the trophy case in her living room, Schexnayder pulled out a frame, mounted in which was a big, shiny blue fountain pen—the very instrument that Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton used in 1985 to sign the bill that officially initiated the Great River Bridge Project with Mississippi. In the black-and-white photograph framed with the pen, Schexnayder stands confidently beside the impish Clinton, who is seated at his desk, smiling at the camera and signing the papers that Schexnayder needs signed.
The bridge group started making annual trips to Washington, at everyone's own expense, to lobby their congressmen for support and funding. Money for studies trickled in here and there, but nothing significant. Then, in 1992, Charlotte was summoned to yet another meeting, this one called by Arkansas Senator David Pryor. The senator told the bridge group about the plans for I-69, which, grasping for adequate superlatives, he said was the most significant project he'd been associated with in his thirty-year political career. "And it was like the blinds opened up. The door opened," Schexnayder recalled. "Suddenly we had an immense opportunity where we'd had small opportunity before. I-69 was a godsend for us to get this bridge."
"You ever been to Washington searching for money or anything?" Ancil Cox asked me. "You just can't believe the people that are there every day walking the streets around the Capitol. And, of course, they got the Senate office building on one side and the House office building on the other side. And you have to take appointments when they give them to you. And sometimes you can have an appointment with a Senator over here and an hour later you've got one with a Representative over here. And it's a pretty good walk all the way around the Capitol. You nearly walk your legs off. And the crowds of people are there from all over the United States. Every week. The sidewalks are full of people, bustling from one side to the other, constantly doing the same thing.
"You go in one of the other Senate or House buildings, it doesn't matter which one, and there'll be people walking the halls. And they're tremendous buildings. And they got maps up there saying, 'You are here,' and you might have to walk around about three miles, it seems like sometimes. And you go in and normally you need to make appointments ahead of time. And sometimes you end up with just one of their representatives, young people that work for them. But they'll usually have a conference room arranged across the hall or something where everyone can go in and sit down, and you can sit there and tell them how far you've gotten on the project and how much you need for the next stage, and tell them, 'We've talked to Senator so-and-so and his folks are working on it.' I mean, they don't have sole control, and they know it. And we know it.
"I don't see how those people ever get anything done with the people that are there worrying them every day."
In an early interview about the bridge, in November, 1984, Charles Dean warned a reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that it might be quite some time before actual construction of the bridge would begin, possibly even as long as eight to ten years, "depending on funding." Had even his pessimistic estimate come true, Charles Dean would have lived to see his vision completed.
"You get into a project like this, and of course you're not gonna live long enough to see it," Schexnayder said to me. "But it's like the story of the old man planting trees. And somebody asks him why. 'You're not gonna be around to see it grow.' And he says, 'It's for those who come after me. I'm the only one who can give them the fruit, and the shade.'" She winked. "That's philosophy."
One afternoon this June, almost twenty years after putting that shiny blue pen to use on Schexnayder's bill, former President Bill Clinton was in Manhattan autographing copies of his Presidential memoir while Schexnayder was back in Arkansas with her fellow bridge boosters signing the Record of Decision for the Great River Bridge. The Federal Highway Administration Record of Decision officially approves the site for the project, and deems it the Mississippi River crossing for the future Interstate 69. The document is considered a formality only, and nearly came without fanfare. "They were just gonna sign it and mail it to us," Schexnayder said. "And we said, 'No! We worked twenty years on this, and we're gonna have a ceremony!'"
The federal transportation funding bill that Congress passes every six years is fifteen months late, and money is tight. So the Record of Decision was just a promise on a piece of paper, not a bridge at all. But a hundred and thirty people came out to the courthouse in Arkansas City to celebrate anyway. The town was soggy from twenty-two days of rain. Judge McElroy was there, with Schexnayder, Cox, and Trice. Martha Dean came with her three children and ten of her thirteen grandchildren. It was her first time in Arkansas City, the first time she'd seen what would be the other side of her husband's bridge. Chuck had started piloting again on weekends in Tunica, driving dinner tours on a family paddleboat pleasure cruiser called the Tunica Queen. He does it partly for fun—he loves the river—but really, he said, he does it to keep his license current. "I want to be the first person to go under my father's bridge."
Everyone took turns signing the Record of Decision document that afternoon at the courthouse. Speeches were made. Ancil Cox presented red roses to Schexnayder and Martha Dean. Just as people were about to board vans to visit the site on the river, the Rev. J.Y. Trice cleared his throat. He had a few words, he said. He praised Charles Dean highly, said a prayer for everyone, and said a prayer for the bridge. It seemed a good moment, between thanking God and thanking Charles Dean, to reflect on pitiful old Arkansas City, a town made by the river and the railroads, then forgotten by both, now desperate for a highway bridge. A good time to reflect on how interchangeable, in these affairs, the acts of God and man can be: a river runs through here, they build a railroad there, the highway crosses here, a flood hits, a bridge gets built—and the whole place changes forever. *
© Matt Dellinger. All Rights Reserved.