BILL MINOR: Towering new Greenville bridge revives fond memories

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Too bad, they’re sending the 70-year-old Greenville Bridge over the Mississippi River, landmark of my 30 seconds of fame (or stupidity?) to the scrap pile. You see, I was one of the few fools years ago to fly under (yes, UNDER) the U.S. 82 Greenville Bridge.
Well, I didn’t exactly fly under the steel span. I was the passenger in a Piper Cub flown by then-Mayor (and later, State Senator) Bill Caraway of Leland, who I must quickly add, was an excellent licensed pilot. (No doubt, the FAA would have yanked his license if it knew he was flying under the bridge.)
Bill had told me when we took off on a nice, clear day from his improvised landing strip between the cotton rows that I was in for a little thrill. He didn’t announce until we neared the Greenville Bridge that he was going to fly under of the bridge’s main span. But, as they say, I was along for the ride. Bill neglected however to tell me a plane from nearby Greenville Air Base once had crashed into the bridge.
I must note that Bill Caraway was a rather remarkable guy who was adept at many things. During World War II, even with a bum kidney that would have kept him out of the service, he persuaded the Army Air Corps to give him a commission and duty as a non-combat flight instructor.
On Monday, Mississippi Department of Transportation officials cut the ribbon for a new four-lane $336 million Greenville bridge located 2,800 feet downstream from the 1940 bridge. The sparkling new span resembles the Golden Gate bridge over San Francisco Bay, because, like the famed California structure, it is also a cable stayed bridge. Of note, the new Greenville Bridge is longer than the Golden Gate.
MDOT commissioner Dick Hall is proud to say that “the Statue of Liberty could be stood on the deck under one of the two the 425 foot tall concrete towers of the new bridge.”
One reason the new bridge was located some half mile downstream is that the old bridge’s location made it prone to barge and tugboat collisions. In fact, it was the most battered bridge on the Mississippi.
What to do with the 70-year-old steel bridge vexed MDOT for months. Because the old bridge was on the national register of historic places, it was necessary for the state to advertise it for sale to anyone who would disassemble it and re-erect it somewhere else. MDOT placed ads in major newspapers around the country. It got no takers, so the state will have to take it apart and likely sell the steel for scrap.
For its day, the 1940 bridge was for several years the longest span on the river. Remember, the Great Depression had not yet ended and its virtually remarkable that Congress approved the $4.5 million bridge. Initially, a toll was charged to cross the bridge, but after 20 years, the bonds were paid off and the toll was lifted. A new era of prosperity and commerce resulted from the U.S. 82 bridge which became a leg on a new system of highways that ran from New York City to Los Angeles. The mayor of Memphis commented that the Greenville Bridge “is not merely a span from one bank (Mississippi) to another (Arkansas) but a pathway to progress.”
Five thousand people gathered for the ribbon cutting on Sept. 17, 1940, for the new bridge, which replaced a ferry as a means of crossing the river to the Arkansas shore. Even today, the old bridge is structurally sound, but doesn’t meet current needs, particularly because it is only two lanes wide and has dangerous approaches. They are eliminated by the new bridge which has a 6406 foot approach on the Mississippi side and 4,602 feet in Arkansas.
Resemblance of the new Greenville bridge to the Golden Gate brings back memories of when aboard my Navy destroyer I sailed under the bridge into the Pacific in 1943 to tangle with the Japanese in World War II. Thank the Lord, two years later we sailed back under the Golden Gate, the good old Stephen Potter and I still intact, with 12 battle stars under our belts.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.