The Big River Crossing: A Weekend to Remember
The giant locomotive whistles, the inspiring speeches, the dazzling display of rainbow lighting on the Harahan Bridge at night, and the first treks across the bridge by foot and by bike are all embedded in Memphis history now, after a weekend that won’t be forgotten by those who were there.
It was the weekend of opening ceremonies for the Big River Crossing and the completion of the Main Street to Main Street project that links downtown Memphis with downtown West Memphis, courtesy of a public/private partnership that involved numerous movers and shakers — notably Charles McVean, the veteran trader and investor who conceived of the project and bird-dogged it into being; Jim Young, the late Union Pacific executive who saw its promise; and Memphis congressman Steve Cohen, who used his energy, know-how, and Capitol Hill connections to get the $15 million TIGER grant (for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) that finished up the financing.
The TIGER grants, authorized by Congress in 2009, exist for the purpose of financing “road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives,” and there’s no doubting that the River Street Crossing and the Main St. to Main St. Multi-Modal Connector Project (to give it its proper name) fill that bill.
On Saturday morning, a sizeable crowd gathered at the Church by the River and on the grounds outside. These were spectators who had registered for the privilege — dignitaries of various kinds, public officials, media,, and various others who had, as it were, got the memo, and were on a checklist that let them get close to the morning’s events.
A large crowd of other were gathered, short of the let-through point, near the railroad tracks just off Channel 3 Drive, and for many of them, train aficionados, that was close enough to see and enjoy the look and overpowering whistle sound of the big steam-engine locomotive, largest of the Union Pacific line, that had come over the Harahan from the Arkansas side as part of the ceremonies.
The city’s most recent mayors were there — current Mayor Jim Strickland with his daughter Kathleen, and former Mayor A C Wharton, both of whom had a major role assisting the project and would get their due when the speeches got started inside the Church. Kevin Kane of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Jack Sammons, Memphis government’s forever utility man, who was acquainted with all the ground-floor facts; Charlie Newman, counsel to McVean, who was the ground floor, and whose own illustrious pedigree had been committed from Day One. Paul Morris, who as president of the Downtown Memphis Commission had been in on the early planning. And Cohen, of course, the final enabler.
With Joe Birch of WMC-TV presiding, festivities got under way in the sanctuary of the Church, and all the tellers told their tales. McVean, the visionary, was the central figure in each story. Morris admitted he’d thought it was a “crazy idea,” this creation of a bike and pedestrian lane all the way across the river on the old bridge but had snapped to when he realized some vital downtown rehab could be made part of the project, of which he took on the day-to-day management.
Newman gave a brief history of the project and spoke of the vital connection between McVean the visionary who wouldn’t take no for an answer and Union Pacific’s Young, who would buy into it despite his industry’s proverbial sense that “trains and people don’t belong together.” Not on the same pathway, anyhow. Newman spoke also of the people on the Arkansas side who were brought in and who, like Young, saw the prospect of urban rehab on their side of the Big Muddy.
Spokespersons for state and federal government had their say. Cohen, dressed casually with a University of Memphis Tiger cap that fed the metaphor, took his bow and elaborated on Morris’ “crazy idea” remark, linking that to the concept of “thinking big” in Memphis history. It was a team effort, Cohen said, concluding, “Go Tigers.”
Strickland had his turn at the mike, noting the appropriateness of the project’s completion so close to the bicentennial of Memphis in 2019. He noted that the project had resulted from a combination of private fundraising, state, and federal help. Pointedly, he gave a hat tip to his predecessor Wharton and to Councilman Reid Hedgepeth for their important efforts, And he introduced the main man, Charlie McVean, “the Superman of the Big River Crossing.”
People got on their feet for McVean, and deservedly so, though, for someone who had made so gigantic task come to pass, McVean had a deceptively diffident manner. He tossed out kudos to various others who had been involved, spoke of further development of the river levees that would create a giant trail all the way to New Orleans, and recalled a conversation with a Chinese official who compared the river project, in its magnitude, to the creation of the Great Wall of China.
Only this wall would not seal off, McVean stressed. It would open things up. He spoke of conversations with Robert Moore, Speaker of the Arkansas House, who had been justifiably proud of Little Rock’s Big Dam Bridge over a dam on the Arkansas River. McVean was complimentary of the bridge but countered, “Mr. Speaker, I want you to be prepared. We’re getting ready to show you boys over here what a damn big bridge is!”
When the ceremony wrapped up, the whole crowd moved down and entered the new bridge walkway that paralleled the railroad track on the northern side of the bridge. These first traffickers were walkers, though a queue of helmeted and eager cyclers waited for their turn whenever the crowd might clear.
That took a while, though. Just as there had been a ceremony on the Memphis side of the Harahan, so had there been one on the Arkansas side. Now members of the two separate gatherings would meet at the halfway point of the bridge. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and Congressman Cohen had the first ceremonial handshake, and then the two bodies of celebrants mingled. So poignant was the moment that nobody was in much of a hurry to clear the walkway.
Eventually the pedestrian mass would clear, of course, making way finally for the cyclists. Much of the crowd would end up across the river at Pancho’s in West Memphis, where one last celebratory event was held under the auspices of the Arkansans involved.
And later that night, at roughly 7 p.m., when darkness fell, the old, rejuvenated Harahan Bridge lit up with pulsating waves of rainbow lighting, courtesy of Philips Lighting. That extraordinary rainbow will appear again at various points on the holiday calendar; meanwhile, the bridge will be lit most nights with a glow that is called, technically, “architectural white.”
In any case, by whatever name and whatever its hues, there is a new light on the river now and, if all goes well, a brighter future for both banks of the Mississippi.