In 1931, when the first bridge spanning the Ouachita River on U.S. 167 near Calion was built – it cost $376,992.83. The bid to construct the new bridge, expected to be completed in 2018, was awarded for more than $29 million.
William Hockaday, resident engineer for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department in Camden, said the new bridge will be 3,205 feet long and will be the northbound lane of the proposed four-lane bridge. He said the bid for the project was let in late 2014 and construction started in 2015. He said depending on the weather, the new bridge will be completed late 2018.
Hockaday said when the new bridge is completed, all traffic will be rerouted from the old to the new bridge, when workers close the current bridge to allow highway department workers to redo some of the off and on approaches.
The current bridge is located over the Ouachita River on the Calhoun and Union County line and will remain – both bridges will handle two lanes of traffic, according to a news release from the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.
W.G. Yates and Sons Construction Co. of Philadelphia, Mississippi, was awarded the contract for the bridge construction at a bid of roughly $29.4 million.
The bridge project is part of the proposed four-lane project from El Dorado to the Ouachita River.
The original U.S. 167 bridge over the Ouachita River was constructed in 1930, according to the Historic American Engineering Record. The contractor was Keliher Construction Co. of Little Rock. The historical report reads, “The Ouachita River Bridge at Calion is a good example of the cantilever design used in Arkansas in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The bridge is also significant because it united the southeastern and southwestern quarters of Arkansas, which the Ouachita River separated. It also opened a direct route from Little Rock to El Dorado,” according to Corinne Smith, engineer, Arkansas Historic Bridge Recording Project, 1988.
Calion started out as El Dorado Landing, a port on a high bluff only 12 miles from El Dorado. The landing was almost forgotten when the Cotton Belt railroad came through El Dorad0 in the late 19th century. The Rock Island railroad came to the old landing in 1902 and Calion grew where the port had been.
When the bridge was considered in 1929, objections were made on the grounds of inconvenience to river traffic; residents fought the highway department on the vertical clearance of the bridge and the Corps of Engineers fought them on the location and horizontal clearance. Eventually, the highway department gave in to the clearance demands.
Congressional approval for the bridge over the Ouachita River was first given on March 12, 1928. The section in the act about operation as a toll bridge was amended on May 25, 1928, to specify that the bridge would be operated as a free bridge once all the bonds for construction had been repaid.
The act concerning the bridge specified that river navigation could not be inhibited by any structure built over the river. People on the Ouachita River were concerned with the vertical height of the bridge; the federal government had spent over $7 million to make the river navigable and $3 million alone had been spent on locks between Calion and Monroe, Louisiana, and many businesses relied on the river for transporting items through Calion, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
According to the history of the bridge, at that time, a swing bridge would need to be five feet above high water and lift bridges and fixed spans would have to provide 55 feet of vertical clearance. A reduction of five feet would delay some boats an average of 14 and a half days in a 20-year period and a reduction of 15 feet would delay some boats as much as 922 days in a 20-year period.
After congressional approval was renewed in June 1929, the highway commission submitted its application on June 20, 1929. Local residents started organizing a formal complaint against the highway commission’s proposed fixed-span bridge, which only allowed 40.14 feet vertical clearance above high water. A similar discontentment over the proposed bridge at Felsenthal was also being voiced.
At that time, it cost an additional $6,000 per additional foot of vertical clearance, totalling $60,000 for the residents’ request. Camden shippers preferred a lift or turn span, but the annual cost of a 24-hour attendant was expensive. A lawyer from El Dorado suggested that steamers put hinges on their smokestacks so they could lower the stacks to pass under the bridge, according to recorded history of the bridge.
The complaints at the public hearing caused the Corps of Engineers’ decision to disapprove the bridge application.
The department originally planned to put the bridge a mile and a half northeast of Calion, but the location posed problems regarding property belonging to the mills and lumber yards. A new vicinity map was drafted on Aug. 12, 1929, for re-siting the bridge.
Keliher Construction Co. won the contract for construction of the bridge on July 15, 1929, with the low bid of $376,992.83. The state’s estimated cost had been $426,569.83. The bridge has two lanes and a total length of 2,500 feet.
Fifteen months after the bridge design was approved, the impending completion of the bridge was announced. At the beginning of 1931, a highway engineer announced that the steel work had been completed and the final concrete slab would be poured within a few days.
Toll charges were $1 for a log wagon, 25 cents for a wagon or buggy, five cents a head for livestock, 50 cents for a trailer over one ton, 25 cents for a one-ton trailer, $1 for a trailer over four tons, 75 cents for a truck from 1.5 to 3 tons and 50 cents for an automobile.
The Ouachita River Bridge was the final link in a $1.02 million project, including the El Dorado-Hampton Highway.
A good-will tour before the bridge opened was held on March 3, 1931, and about 100 people left from El Dorado in the early morning to tour the counties and towns east of the Ouachita. The 31-car motorcade visited Hampton, Fordyce, Warren, Banks, Harrell, Hermitage and Monticello.
On March 6, 1931, the dedicatory address was given by Highway Commission Chairman Dwight H. Blackwood from the center span of the bridge, which had been decorated with evergreens. Then another motorcade proceeded back to El Dorado for the rest of the festivities. The Friday program included motor boat races, concerts, a horseshoe tournament, an old fiddlers’ contest, dancing and singing. The highlight of the day was a wedding pageant symbolizing the union of Southern Arkansas.
In September 1993, state and area officials gathered to dedicate the new Calion bridge, a $10.5 million steel and concrete structure that was built to replace the steel bridge that for 62 years had carried traffic over the river, according to News-Times archives. Those dedication ceremonies were also held at the center of the bridge. At that time, the old bridge and the new bridge stood side by side across the river. Two El Dorado residents in 1993, Boyd Alderson and Russell Marks, attended both bridge dedications – in 1931 and 1993. After the public ceremony to dedicate the bridge on Sept. 3, 1993, the bridge was opened for business.
According to News-Times file reports, on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1993, a 280-foot test section of the bridge was blown down. On Friday, Oct. 8, 1993, the old Calion bridge that had served as a passageway over the Ouachita River since 1931, was broken apart by explosive charges and fell into the river. The majority of the bridge was blown down that day by Taylor Brothers of Evansville, Ind.