Old River Bridge
OLD RIVER BRIDGE,
The beginning of the building of bridges implied a fair degree of civilization and intelligence. It sprang from a desire to maintain and extend an orderly way of life with ready communication from place to place. The bridge, specifically, was a symbol of man's conquest of the river. Not only a channel for human migration and commerce, the river was a challenge and barrier to overcome. Bridges, like fire, represented an expansive force of man's conquest of nature.
It is not known when the first bridge was constructed, but at some time in the past, man lowered a log across a stream and built the first bridge. The oldest bridge on record was built in Egypt across the Nile River by Pharaoh Menes of the First Dynasty about 2650 B.C.
It was not until the 18th century that the first iron bridge was constructed. Designed by Thomas Pritchard, this bridge was constructed in 1779 at the village of Coalbrookdale, England. Iron bridges were slow to take hold in popularity. Although they were cheaper to construct than stone bridges, engineers had doubts about the structural safety of iron bridges. In the later part of the 18th century Scotsman Thomas Telford brought about a general adoption of iron bridges through his construction of several sound iron bridges.
The Old River Bridge in Saline County, Arkansas, is a significant historical structure as one of the oldest remaining bridges in the state. Constructed in 1889 at a cost of $5,000, this iron bridge over the Saline River represents a great deal of the history of the county.
The first recorded settler in Saline County was William Lockhart who came from North Carolina in 1815. After deciding that he did not want to settle his family around Little Rock he moved south along the Missouri Trail (later named “The Military Road”). At the point where the trail crossed the Saline River Lockhart chose to settle. For two years the Lockharts were the only settlers in the entire area. By 1819 a settlement consisting of about ten families had been established at the point where the trail crossed the Saline River. In 1827 Ezra M. Owen established a small settlement west of the Saline River and named it Collegeville. Early in 1831 a post office was established at the “crossing of the Saline” with William Lockhart as posmaster. The settlement was officially named “Saline.”
The “Old Missouri Trail” became important as the connection between Collegeville and Little Rock and as a main road through the county.
It was made a military road in 1824 and there were constant requests for Congress to appropriate funds to improve it. In the early 1830's all that had been done to change the road from a barely passable trail was cutting of timber for the right of way. The argument was made to Congress that it was the main artery of travel from St. Louis and Memphis southwest into Texas and Mexico, and therefore a national concern. Besides a rough path to follow, the Saline River posed a problem, for during several months of the year it was impossible to ford it. In 1831 the Arkansas Legislature passed a law giving to William Lockhart an exclusive right to construct and operate a toll bridge over the Saline Rives at the point where it was crossed by the Military Road. The passage rates to be charged were to be fixed by “the proper court.” Lockhart was to keep the bridge in good repair for the duration of this twenty year franchise.
The significance of the Military Road is exemplified by an article appearing in the November 30, 1830, Arkansas Gazette reading:
“The road on this side of the Mississippi is full of movers - principally emigrating toward the western counties of this Territory. The throng at the ferry at Memphis, we understand, is sometimes so great that movers are not unfrequently detained a day or two before their turn for crossing over arrives… The emigrants by this route are principally from Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolinas, and Georgia - and we learn from travelers that the rage for emigration to Arkansas from those States is still increasing… If the emigration to Arkansas continues at the rate it has for the last year, it will not be many years before our population will entitle us to an honorable admission into the Union without the necessity of ‘squeezing in’, as some are anxious that we should do at the present time… It is estimated that 1500 souls have crossed at that ferry since last spring, who were destined for Washington county.”
Lockhart was actively involved in making his community important. Through his efforts, within a four month period of time in 1831, a contract had been let for “cutting out and opening the road”, the toll bridge franchise and the establishment of a post office on the site.
In 1830 a settlement five miles up the river had been started by Charles Caldwell. Benton, as it came to be known, began to grow and was named the county seat at the formation of Saline County in 1835. This expanded the importance of the Military Road but slowly lead to the decline of settlement in Lockhart's “Saline.”
In 1889 the Saline County Court appropriated $5,000 for the construction of an iron bridge over the Saline River at the Military Road Crossing. Constructed in that year, the bridge remained in use until April of 1974 when a truck loaded with concrete blocks severely damaged the floor of the bridge.
The community of Benton recognizes the historical value of the bridge and the site which it occupies and is taking steps to place there a marker with a sketch of the history of the site. Plans are also being made to utilize the bridge as a walkable reminder of the significance of the site.
As one of the oldest standing bridges in Arkansas, and as an area of strong historical significance, the Old River Bridge serves as a local landmark in Saline County.
Benton Courier, Centennial Edition, 1937.
Benton Courier, April 16, 1974.
Billings, Henry. Bridges. New York: Viking Press, 1956.
Demuth, David. Telephone interview, October 28, 1976.
Goodspeed Publishing Company. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Central Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1890.