The “Old River Bridge” has been a long-standing historical landmark in Saline County dating back to the late 1800s. In present day, the bridge is most famous for its’ on screen appearance in the Billy Bob Thornton movie, Sling Blade, that was released in 1996. A picture of the bridge spans the cover of the movie case and the bridge is a focal point of the entire film. The motion picture won several awards including an Academy Award for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, an Independent Spirit Award and an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture.
Located on the Saline River between Haskell, AR and Benton, AR, the bridge once served as the passageway into the southwest. William S. Lockhart, an early pioneer first settled on the banks of the Saline River in the spring of 1815 on what was formally known as the Southwest Trail. The trail extended southwestwardly from near modern day St. Louis, MO through Saline County and on towards Mexico. The trail was commonly used by Indians, Settlers, and Freedom Fighters. In the early 1800s, the only way across the river was by foot or animal because there was no bridge to cross the Saline River, until Lockhart chose to make the area his homestead.
Lockhart was permitted by the territorial governments to build a bridge and was also permitted to charge fees to ferry travelers of the Southwest Trail safely across the Saline River. He also provided room and board to travelers as well as supplies. His homestead [at Saline Crossing] became the “Bridge to the Southwest” and is one of the most historically significant locations in Arkansas.
Saline County was established in 1835. In those times, there was no highway department to assist in the making and clearing of the roads. Roads were simply old worn out paths and clearings through the forests. Rivers and creeks were obstacles to all travelers and commonly posed problems to those attempting to cross the waters.
The building of a steel bridge was commissioned by the Saline County Quorum Court in 1889 and the construction of the steel bridge was completed in 1891 by the lowest bidder, Youngstown Bridge Company of Youngstown, Ohio. The company’s bid was for $7000. The steel bridge was in use until 1974, when a truck loaded down with concrete blocks attempted to travel across. The wooden floor of the bridge collapsed and areas of the steel frame were damaged. The “Old River Bridge” still stands were it was erected 124 years ago but has been closed and is in disrepair, until now.
The Saline Crossing Regional Park and Recreation Area, Inc., a not for profit tax exempt foundation, has adopted the mission of refurbishing the “Old River Bridge” to its 1891 grandeur and plans on utilizing the bridge as a reminder of the historical significance of Saline Crossing.
“The vision and the mission of Saline Crossing Regional Park and Recreation Area, Inc. is to have the ‘Old River Bridge’ repaired, refurbished, and returned to life. In the past, the bridge has been a vital part of our commerce and convenience and can be the central attraction to a fabulous recreational system—not only a world class bikeway but a central park with a variety of family-friendly, outdoor fun [activities] at Saline Crossing,” Lynn Moore, former Benton Mayor said. The bridge is to be the cornerstone of a regional park with a visitor center, museum, walking trails, equestrian trails, nature interpretive areas, and aquatic recreation features.
To aid the Saline Crossing Regional Park and Recreational Area Inc. in its mission, Saline County has received a $500,000 grant for the restoration of the bridge. The grant stems from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) matching grant. The Arkansas Highway Transportation Department also took part in the process and out of 48 applications for the grant monies, 28 projects were approved, the “Old River Bridge” being one of them and the grant was awarded to Saline County.
The overall general plan for the restoration process is to lift the two spans from their piers and place on high-ground using cranes, disassemble the bridge and evaluate, make the necessary repairs and reassemble, and replace spans on piers and construct approach ramps. The project is expected to take a couple of years and will require additional grants to complete. The bridge is currently distinguished as the second oldest bridge in Arkansas, it is on the National Register of Historical Structures, and is on the list of the Most Endangered Historical structures in Arkansas.
“The restoration of the ‘Old River Bridge’ will be the most interesting public works project ever in our county. The completed project may command the grandest celebration in Central Arkansas,” Moore concluded.