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Hernando de Soto Bridge (Memphis, TN)

The newest of the bridges that span the lower Mississippi River at Memphis, the Hernando de Soto Bridge was completed in 1973 and carries Interstate 40 between downtown Memphis and West Memphis, AR. The bridge’s signature M-shaped superstructure makes it an instantly recognizable landmark in the city and one of the most visually unique bridges on the Mississippi River.

As early as 1953, Memphis city planners recommended the construction of a second highway bridge across the Mississippi River to connect the city with West Memphis, AR. The Memphis & Arkansas Bridge had been completed only four years earlier a couple miles downriver from downtown, however it was expected that long-term growth in the metro area would warrant the construction of an additional bridge, the fourth crossing of the Mississippi River to be built at Memphis, in the not-too-distant future. Unlike the previous three Mississippi River bridges to be built the city, the location chosen for this bridge was about two miles upriver from the Frisco/Harahan/Memphis & Arkansas trio of bridges, at an outcropping known as Mud Island, across from downtown Memphis. The project received a critical boost when in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act created the national system of interstate highways and the newly-formed Interstate 40 freeway was designated to run east-west across greater Memphis, utilizing the planned bridge at Mud Island.

With federal funding assured due to the proposed bridge’s location on the interstate system, construction began in 1967. There were initial disagreements between the states of Tennessee and Arkansas as to how the project’s state-level funding would be split between them. Tennessee argued for a 50-50 share of responsibility, however Arkansas argued that Tennessee would see far greater benefit from the project economically and advocated for a 67-33 split in favor of Tennessee. In the end, a compromise agreement was reached where Tennessee agreed to a majority 60-40 stake in its construction in exchange for Arkansas assuming primary responsibility for the bridge’s maintenance post-construction.


Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto (c.1500-1542) is known as the first European to lead an expedition through the region known today as the Mississippi Delta.

After multiple years of delays and cost overruns, the new I-40 Bridge opened to traffic on August 2, 1973 after nearly six years of construction. The bridge was named in honor of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, who led the first European expedition in an exploration of the American southeast and the Mississippi Delta in the early 1540s. The bridge’s overall length is nearly two miles, as the elevated structure crosses the Mississippi River and its adjacent flood plains on both sides. The centerpiece of the bridge is it’s M-shaped arch design, which gives the bridge its distinctive appearance. The two main arch spans are 900 ft apiece and the structure supports a six-lane freeway that serves as one of the most important highways in the American south. A large interchange is located at the east end of the main span above Mud Island, where unfinished ramp stubs exist that were intended to connect the bridge with a never-completed ”Mud Island Expressway”, a freeway that would have run from Riverside Drive in downtown northward to the US Highway 51 corridor in North Memphis before ending at the northwest corner of the Memphis Loop (Interstate 40). This freeway proposal was quietly shelved in the 1980s and the short freeway spur that connects I-40 with US 51 at Exit 2A (and part of the future I-69 corridor across western Tennessee) was the lone fragment of this highway that was ever built.


The Hernando de Soto Bridge was emptied of all traffic in this May 2021 photo. The long-term closure of the bridge and adjacent Interstate 40 received national attention at a time when the condition of the nation's infrastructure was under greater scrutiny.

Due to the bridge’s unique M-shaped superstructure, this bridge is sometimes known as the Memphis Bridge or the “M-Bridge” by locals. With the recent realization of the potential of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, federal and state officials secured funding for sweeping upgrades to the structure’s support system that are aimed at making the bridge more resilient to powerful earthquake events. The most substantial of these upgrades to date has been the replacement of the bridge support bearings with pendulum isolation bearings. These newer bearings isolate the road deck from the support structure below, enabling it to shake independently of the substructure, reducing the risk of catastrophic failure of the support system. About $70 million has been invested since the 1990s for this seismic retrofit program, as of 2023. It is estimated that the de Soto Bridge is now engineered to withstand earthquake shaking of about M7.0 on the Richter Scale. It is hoped that we will never need to find out the accuracy of this statement.

The bridge gained national attention in May 2021 when a routine inspection discovered a complete fracture of a longitudinal edge girder beneath the roadway at the bridge’s main span. The bridge was immediately closed to all traffic as the situation was assessed and repairs were made to shore up the structure. The de Soto Bridge’s superstructure was designed with multiple redundancies built into its support system, so this local failure thankfully did not translate into a catastrophic collapse. Temporary repairs were completed in August and the bridge reopened to traffic that month, however the traffic nightmare that played out in the Memphis area that summer received national attention due to the high visibility of the corridor in question. The inspection team affiliated with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the discovered fracture when it was revealed that the damaged girder had gone unnoticed by prior inspections as far back as 2019. The systemic breakdown in the maintenance & inspection procedures at this bridge is disturbing to say the least and it has hopefully led to the reassessment of procedures nationwide and the implementation of improved methods that will keep our bridge inspectors vigilant and our bridges safe for the public’s use.

The following aerial photos from my May 2021 visit to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase various views of the bridge and its surroundings along the Mississippi River while it was closed to all traffic following the failed inspection earlier that month. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following photos from my visits to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase various vantage points from ground level on the Mississippi Riverfront in Memphis, TN. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following photos from my February 2023 visit to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase various vantage points from ground level on the Mississippi Riverfront in West Memphis, AR. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following photos from my February 2023 visit to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase the eastbound crossing of the bridge from West Memphis, AR to Memphis, TN. Click on each photo to see a larger version.


The following photos from my February 2023 visit to the Hernando de Soto Bridge showcase the westbound crossing of the bridge from Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR. 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. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

Dashcam video of the eastbound drive over the Hernando de Soto Bridge was filmed in February 2023 for the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel and is available for viewing at the link below:

Dashcam video of the westbound drive over the Hernando de Soto Bridge was filmed in February 2023 for the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel and is available for viewing at the link below:

The Hernando de Soto Bridge was featured in the "Bridges of the Lower Mississippi River" webinar on the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel, beginning at the 17:45 mark:

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Comments

Anonymous said…
I grew up in Memphis and watched this bridge be built. I also remember the public debate over what to name it. One local newspaper advocated for calling it the M Bridge. Simple. Logical. Some suggested an honor to the native Americans who lived and traveled the river for thousands of years. But unimaginative Memphis politicians obsessed with the Europeanisation of U.S. history won out. Hernando de Soto has zero historical ties to Memphis. He's just a murderous Spanish Conquistador who it is believed (no one knows for sure) crossed the river somewhere in that area and was annoyed by it because it delayed his search for gold.

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