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Walking (across the Mississippi River) in Memphis

Of the four bridges in Memphis that cross the Mighty Mississippi River, only one you can legally walk or bike across - the Harahan Bridge.  Located southwest of Downtown, the Harahan Bridge is an active rail bridge, and thanks to a refurbished cantilevered roadway, it shares space with runners, bikers, and sightseers.

View of the Memphis Skyline and DeSoto Bridge from one of Harahan Bridge's observation points.

Known as the Big River Crossing, bicyclists, pedestrians, and tourists can get an up close and personal view of the over 100-year-old bridge - and some impressive views of the Memphis skyline.

Harahan Bridge History:

The Harahan Bridge was the second railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi in Memphis and the first to allow automobiles to cross.  It opened in 1916 after three years of construction.  The impetus for constructing the bridge was to relieve rail traffic on the single-track Great Bridge, now known as the Frisco Bridge.

The Harahan Bridge - The railroad is on top - the covered part of the bridge is the Big Crossing Pedestrian/Bike Trail that was the former site of the westbound wagonway.

The Frisco Bridge began service in 1892, and by 1912, the increase in rail traffic had led to significant bottlenecks on both sides of the bridge.  Local leaders, businesses, and rail companies pushed hard for a second bridge to improve the flow of goods and materials.  The leadership group commissioned Ralph Modjeski to design the bridge.  He engineered a cantilevered through truss bridge that carried two sets of railroad tracks. (1)

Another look at the former westbound wagonway which is now utilized by hundreds of bicyclists and pedestrians every day.

The start of the automobile age would add another feature to the bridge.  On each side of the bridge, a 14-foot 'wagonway,' hung from the main superstructure, would carry vehicles across the bridge.  On the Arkansas side of the bridge, a viaduct would connect cars and trucks from the bridge to land.

The $6 million project dealt with heavy river traffic, high waters, and the tragic death of 23 men. (2)  The bridge opened to rail traffic in July 1916, and the vehicular wagonways opened to traffic in 1917.  For over a decade, the Harahan's 14-foot wood-planked cantilevered wagonways were the only vehicular crossing south of the Ohio River along the Mississippi. (1)

Harahan Bridge plaque on the Memphis side of the crossing.

The Harahan Bridge was to be called the Rock Island Bridge; however, it was quickly renamed after the death of James Harahan, who died tragically in a rail accident before the bridge's construction.  Harahan was president of the Illinois Central Railroad.  The accident occurred while Harahan was traveling to Memphis to discuss the new bridge.

Three of Memphis' Mississippi River Bridges (l to r Harahan, Frisco, Memphis & Arkansas) are yards apart.

The rickety planks of the Harahan Bridge carried automobiles and trucks across the Mississippi until the opening of the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge in 1949.  That bridge crosses the Mississippi a few hundred yards downstream from the Harahan and currently carries Interstate 55.

The Big River Crossing:

Not long after the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge opened, the wooden planks of the Harahan wagonways were removed; however, the cantilever structure that supported the two roadways remained.  They sat empty for nearly 70 years when a long-proposed idea to convert them to a bike and pedestrian trail came to fruition.

The Big River Crossing Project started as a 1975 proposal to utilize the Harahan Bridge for a bike/pedestrian trail. (3)  In 2012, the project received a significant boost when a $15 million federal transportation TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant for construction. (4)

Construction began in 2014, and the crossing opened to the public on October 22, 2016.  It is the longest public bike and pedestrian crossing of the Mississippi River.  Visitors can access the bridge on either side of the river (Memphis and West Memphis, AR).  The crossing connects Memphis to the Big River Trail System on the Arkansas Side of the river.

E-bike stand on the West Memphis, Arkansas side of the bridge.

There is no cost to access the bridge.  An electric bicycle station sits on the Arkansas side of the bridge.  E-bikes are a fun, fast, and inexpensive way to enjoy the bridge.  The Memphis side of the bridge connects to Tom Lee Park as a gateway into town.

At the Arkansas/Tennessee State Line over the Mississippi River on the Big River Crossing.

On the Arkansas side - the flood plains give you excellent access to view the Harahan and the Frisco and Memphis & Arkansas bridges up close.  You can also run, bike, or walk upstream for a great view of the DeSoto Bridge and the Memphis skyline.

All photos taken by post author - July 2023.

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