At the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the Federal Highway Act of 1956 — a law that would allocate federal funding to the revitalize efforts to establish an interstate highway system, which slowed considerably during World War II.
Population growth and rapidly increasing ownership of cars necessitated stronger transportation infrastructure in the U.S.
The new and improved system of federal highways called for a bridge connecting Tennessee and Arkansas together that crossed the Mississippi River as part of Interstate 40. Memphis wasn’t quite the logistical hub it’s known as today, (FedEx was still a few years away from the first cargo deliveries) but the connection was already considered an essential component by planners.
Today, the importance of the Hernando de Soto bridge has been underscored by its closure, which has disrupted commerce, job commutes, and leisure travel. Politicians have seized the bridge’s closure as an ideal moment to reexamine the importance of infrastructure, and tout the Biden-Harris administration’s ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure spending bill.
An examination of archives from The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Press-Scimitar, the Associated Press and interviews with Shelby County Historian Jimmy Route III paints a portrait of a multi-year endeavor with numerous obstacles. The end result, however, was a piece of infrastructure that would reshape the Memphis skyline and become one of the most recognizable symbols of the city.
A funding feud between two states kicked off construction
Construction of the bridge began on May 2, 1968, when the first coffers were plunged into the river bed. The first significant task crews faced was dredging tons of dirt from completed cofferdams — a structure within the river that could be pumped free of water to allow for construction.
The project, referred to as a superstructure, was not without delays. One of the cofferdams collapsed soon after construction started. Officials pointed a finger towards a wily towboat as the culprit.
Tennessee and Arkansas initially feuded over the cost of the bridge. Tennessee officials wanted to split the construction costs 50-50. Arkansas officials argued that Tennessee was the bigger state with a larger population, and should shoulder more of the cost. Eventually, the two states decided on a 60-40 split, with Tennessee taking the majority of financial responsibility.
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Even after the agreement, Arkansas initially backed out of its funding commitment, citing the federal government’s shortchanging of the state’s highway funding as reason. The state, said then-Arkansas Highway Director Ward Goodman, had more pressing priorities to accomplish with federal dollars.
The funding snafus lead to the federal government having to cough up an additional $12.5 million in funding for the project in 1969.
Other hiccups included an argument between Tennessee and Arkansas governments over the design of the bridge. Originally, plans called for longer spans with a lower clearance — an elongated version of the current design. A compromise was reached, shortening the length of the arches that formed the ‘M’ and raising the clearance level.
At the outset, the price tag for the bridge was estimated at $12 million. But upon completion of the bridge, 10 major contracts sealed a final price tag of $57 million.
Though the bridge was originally slated for completion in 1971, the sum of various delays pushed the opening date out by almost two years.
In the course of construction, one worker named Clay Curtis died after falling off the bridge during his shift. His death was the sole fatality in the course of construction, perhaps a sign that safety standards had improved for workers since the nine lives lost in the construction of the Harahan Bridge between 1914 and 1916, and the three lives lost in the construction of the I-55 “old” bridge in the late 40s.
Park preservation efforts collide with interstate building momentum
While the bridge steadily took shape in the late 60s, Memphians wondered how I-40 traffic would cross Midtown. At the time, litigation to prevent highway planners from plowing a portion of the interstate through Overton Park was winding its way through the court system.
Commercial Appeal reporters penned phrases that summarized the litigation as a temporary delay that would eventually be overcome.
The Supreme Court’s eventual 1971 decision sided with the coalition that included Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society, and stifled any chance of interstate construction through the park.
After the success of the suit, a portion of the original I-40 interstate became Sam Cooper Boulevard, and a portion of the Interstate 240 loop served as the connection to I-40 that swings traffic to the north of Midtown and Uptown on its way to the bridge.
By picking de Soto’s name, civic leaders wanted to convey a sense of exploration
Members of the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce and the now-dissolved Future Memphis, a group of business leaders “formed for the purpose of promoting the welfare and orderly future development of the city of Memphis, Tennessee, and its environs” settled on a recommendation for naming the new bridge after Hernando de Soto after months of debate, according to Commercial Appeal archives.
The significance of his name, the groups decided, was appropriate. The Mississippi River was “a barrier to be crossed, to push men westward into new territories,” one editorial proclaimed.
Add to that, Memphis had recently celebrated 150 years of cityhood. De Soto’s name and legacy was a central fixture in sesquicentennial celebrations, said Route.
De Soto, a Spanish conquistador and gold-thirsty explorer, was “reputed to have discovered the wide river later called the Mississippi,” according to Commercial Appeal archives.
De Soto, of course, did not discover the Mississippi River. Rather, de Soto was the first European explorer to lay eyes on the river. The indigenous populations, such as the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, already knew about the Mississippi River as a life-sustaining geographical feature.
And, there’s still uncertainty about the exact location where de Soto once locked eyes on the Mississippi River. As Route points out, “Everybody wants to say de Soto first crossed the river in their area.”
Historians believe that after his fever-induced death, de Soto’s body was weighed down with armor and tossed in the Mississippi River, so as to avoid the attention of indigenous populations his men had previously slaughtered or enslaved, and preserve de Soto’s claims of divinity.
A $1,600 car ride and a pair of beauty queens kick off decades of traffic
After 5 years of construction, 21,000 tons of fabricated steel, and 157,000 bolts screwed into place, the bridge was informally opened to traffic on Aug. 3, 1973. About 50 cars crossed the bridge on opening day, well below the expected amount.
Many drivers couldn’t figure out how to utilize the access roads to get on the bridge. It didn’t help, either, that unfinished access roads on the Memphis side abruptly ended. Thanks to a prankster, the permanent barriers in place to thwart drivers from the incomplete access roads that led to a 30-foot drop into the dirt below had been stolen.
Milton Schaeffer, an automobile dealer, paid $1,600 at a charity auction for the privilege of being the first driver to cross the bridge. On opening day, Schaeffer ended up away on a fishing trip. His wife drove the car instead and remarked the view was worth the $1,600.
Soprano singer Marguerite Piazza, an opera star from New Orleans, was hired to sing the national anthem. The official ribbon-cutting task went to two Southern beauty queens — Anne Galloway who was crowned both Miss Memphis and Miss Tennessee and Miss West Memphis Chamber of Commerce Diane Barbour.
In Downtown Memphis, celebrations were planned by volunteer committees. Local businesses offered a wide range of opening day discounts and bargains. Pages of advertisements in The Commercial Appeal and the Press-Scimitar sought to liken the awe of the bridge with their own services.
“One great landmark welcomes another,” boasted an ad from Lowenstein’s, one of the four major department stores that once lured shoppers downtown.
Carol Colletta organized a day of celebration in Court Square complete with the double-decker Overton Square bus so bridge spectators could catch a ride back to Court Square festivities.
If there was one anxious detractor in the crowd, it might have been then-Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler, who told the Associated Press he was worried the new bridge would result in an exodus of Memphians who might head across the river for the quiet-by-comparison town of West Memphis, Arkansas.
“What I’m afraid of,” he told the Associated Press, “is that it’s going to be much easier to have a bedroom community on the west side of the river and we’ll lose a lot of our folks.”
Conversely, then-West Memphis Mayor Tilden Rogers was eager to welcome a population boom for West Memphis, which at the time had a population of 26,070, according to U.S. Census data.
Chandler’s fears and Rogers’ hopes would never materialize; the current population of West Memphis today is less than 25,000.
Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @megawatts2000.