Big River Crossing reinterprets the Mississippi River's role in transit

One mile long and 100 feet above the air. The $16 million Big River Crossing boardwalk is the longest pedestrian path across the Mississippi River.
They started gathering around 6 A.M.
People from both sides of the Harahan Bridge—in Downtown Memphis and in West Memphis, Ark. —wanted to be among the first to cross the nation's longest pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River.

When the ribbon was finally cut the afternoon of Oct. 22, cyclists, joggers and dignitaries got a view of the river never before seen to the public.

"Unless you've been a rail conductor, it is a view that you have not seen of Memphis since 1949," said Mayor Jim Strickland at a conference prior to the grand opening.

Over a thousand people turned out for the pedestrian bridge’s big reveal during a day of festivities that lifted infrastructure to an embodiment of civic pride. People weren’t necessarily cheering with their families when a flyover for Interstate-40 was announced.

Underscoring that contrast between nostalgia and innovation was the Union Pacific Railroad's headliner, the world’s oldest steam locomotive.

When the 454-ton train, known as "Living Legend," blew its whistle, it signaled a new connection between Memphis’ heritage as a freight hub and its future as an outdoor destination. Both uses come together along a mile-long bridge across the Mississippi River. For the first time, pedestrians will be able to safely walk on a boardwalk along an active rail line.
"We've maybe lost our connection to the river over time, and now we’ve given people a reason to come here."

The Big River Crossing, formally known as the Main-to-Main Intermodal Connector Project, is a $40 million endeavor several years in the making. The larger project is a 10-mile multimodal corridor connecting Downtown Memphis to West Memphis. The cornerstone of the project is the $18 million boardwalk that was funded through a mix of federal, state, local and private funds.

The 100-year-old bridge has entered the 21st century fueled by what project visionary Charlie McVean calls "the power of human activity".
McVean, founder of McVean Trading & Investments and primary backer of the Big River Crossing, called the project a “behemoth” and something that could garner the city of Memphis international recognition.

Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, said that his department has already begun marketing the Big River Crossing as part of Memphis’ outdoor recreational opportunities. The boardwalk joins Shelby Farms’ $52 million renovation and an ever-growing greenline network of bike trails.

"It’s happened quietly...but now with the Big River Crossing, we’ve gone from having this nice little path here and there to all of a sudden this unbelievable network," Kane said.

The Big River Crossing is a valuable artery in the 73-mile Big River Parkway Trail, which is a paved network of paths on top of Mississippi River levees in eastern Arkansas. McVean’s hope is that one day this trail will run all the way to New Orleans.

Memphis’ role in Mississippi River tourism grows even greater under the National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations. As a site of "geotourism" significance, the Mississippi River is a gem on National Geographic’s map as a destination for authentic travel experiences.

“When you look at tourism and its impact on the economy, particularly in rural America and the Delta region, having a strong asset like the Harahan Bridge will add to all the wonderful things that make the Delta region iconic and so historic,” said Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority.

The Big River Crossing is complemented by bike share, a network of for-hire bikes expected to hit the pavement in early 2017. The majority of the city’s 60 bike stations will be placed Downtown, especially at points that intersect with riverside trails. Through December, the bridge’s LED lights will flicker every Friday in hundreds of different color and pattern configurations. The adjacent Martyrs’ Park, what once was a hidden gem in the city’s park network, will extend its hours of operation so that people can gather for the light show.

“This crossing is built to people scale, not city scale,” said Doug McGowan, COO of the City of Memphis.
“That’s one of the beauties of this because it does bring new attention to the important of biking and running and walking. It's a new connection and opportunity for people to connect to the river. We've maybe lost our connection to the river over time, and now we’ve given people a reason to come here.”

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.
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