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Harahan Bridge/"Big River Crossing" (Memphis, TN)

The opening of the Frisco Bridge in 1892 transformed Memphis into a national railroad hub and within only a few years of its completion, the railroad infrastructure of the area (as well as the bridge itself) had become dated and inadequate to serve the large increase in cross-river traffic demand both locally and regionally. The solution was the construction of a parallel bridge at the same location that would address the rising demands of the railroad industry, while being forward-looking in how it would handle new-age modes of transportation. This bridge, the Harahan Bridge, was completed in 1916 and was the second bridge completed across the lower Mississippi River at Memphis.

City of Memphis officials (including then-Mayor E.H. Crump) reached an agreement on the scope of the new project with the Rock Island Railroad in 1912 and construction began the following year. Like the Frisco Bridge next door, the Harahan Bridge was a major design achievement for another prominent American civil engineer. Ralph Modjeski served as chief engineer for this project, one of his many influential bridge designs across the United States in the early 20th Century. His design called for a larger and wider bridge that carries two railroad tracks, instead of the single track design of the Frisco Bridge. The steady rise of the automobile as a reliable means of personal transportation at this time was on the mind of planners and engineers and this new travel mode was accounted for in the design of the new structure. A pair of roadways (or “wagonways” as they were known originally) are cantilevered outside the main steel superstructure, each 14 ft wide, enabling ample space for automobiles, pedestrians, and wagons in each direction. This configuration of the roadways in relation to the superstructure is a design that went on to be copied and mimicked with multiple other railroad bridges that were built on the lower Mississippi River in the ensuing decades. 

The need to accommodate ever-heavier railroad loads with a higher-capacity railroad deck meant that the superstructure of this bridge had to be built much heavier with far more steel than its predecessor next door. In this unique case, it’s possible to see how much railroad bridge engineering evolved over a short period of time around the turn of the 20th century, as the two primary examples of this progression stand side-by-side at this location. At about one mile in length, the finished bridge was very similar in proportion to its neighbor just downriver. The span lengths were required to be kept the same so that the piers of both bridges would line up in the river navigation channels and reduce the hazard to on-water traffic.

Ralph Modjeski (1861-1940)

The Harahan Bridge carried its first train on July 14, 1916. The bridge was planned to be named “Rock Island Bridge” but was named instead for railroad executive James Theodore Harahan prior to its completion. Harahan was an influential railroad magnate with the Illinois Central Railroad who was killed in a railroad accident in January 1912. Ironically, he was en route to Memphis for further discussions with the city’s officials about the project that was then still only an idea, and he was a strong supporter of the project that bears his name today.

James Theodore Harahan (1841-1912)

While the new bridge handled the demands of the railroad industry adequately, the same could not be said in the long term for its innovative wagonways, which became overworked with automobile traffic in the 1930s and 40s. This reality led to the planning and construction of a third bridge at this location exclusively to accommodate the rise of the automobile as the dominant mode of cross-river transportation in the years after World War II. This third bridge, the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, was completed in 1949 and upon its opening, the wagonways on the Harahan Bridge were closed to all traffic.

The former wagonways sat abandoned for the ensuing decades until the city of Memphis reached an agreement with the bridge’s principal owner the Union Pacific Railroad to restore the wagonway on the north side of the structure for pedestrian and bicycle traffic as part of an urban trail serving the Memphis area. The project was completed in time for the bridge’s centennial year in 2016 and the facility is known as the Big River Crossing, although the official name of the bridge remains the Harahan Bridge today. The walkway makes use of the original 1916 infrastructure as well as improvements made in the 1930s to the wagonway approach roads on the Arkansas landing and it offers sweeping views of the Memphis skyline to the north while giving pedestrians the unique experience of sharing a bridge with an active railroad corridor. The south wagonway has never been restored to any sort of function and it is likely that this will remain the case in the years to come.

The following photos from my May 2019 visit to the Harahan Bridge showcase the "Big River  Crossing" pedestrian & bicycle path located on the north side of the bridge that entered service in 2016. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following photos from my February 2023 visit to the Harahan Bridge showcase various vantage points from ground level on the Mississippi Riverfront in West Memphis, AR. Notice the proximity of the Frisco Bridge and Memphis & Arkansas Bridge immediately downriver. Take note of the abandoned south wagonway of the bridge, which is visible from the existing Big River Crossing walkway on the Arkansas landing. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following aerial photos from my February 2023 visit to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase various views of the bridge and its surroundings along the Mississippi River. Notice the proximity of the Frisco Bridge and Memphis & Arkansas Bridge immediately downriver. Take note of the abandoned south wagonway of the bridge. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The Harahan Bridge was featured in the "Bridges of the Lower Mississippi River" webinar on the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel, beginning at the 31:54 mark:


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