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Old Man Bridge
A new bridge promises change in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. But will it ever be built?
Winter, 2005

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.


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