Historic Memphis Bridges

               ... across the Mississippi


From the earliest days of the steamboat, Memphis has been a major center of river transportation. Passenger steamers linked Memphis with river ports up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers.  If trains hadn't become a major factor in commerce and transportation, it's doubtful that Memphis would have given a bridge across the Mississippi a serious thought.  The city's first bridge was built in 1892, as a railroad bridge.  Carriage or Automobile traffic was not a serious factor.  And when the second bridge was built in 1916, roadways still seemed to be almost a second thought, because they were hung off both sides in 1917.  This is the story of those early bridges and others that have been added since.

 Click on small photos to see larger photos.

The Frisco Bridge ...The Great Bridge at Memphis ...The Memphis Bridge ...The Iron Bridge

It must be a law that any type of architectural structure in Memphis should have more than one name.  The Frisco Bridge is no exception.  It's original name was
The Great Bridge at Memphis, .  Later that was shortened to The Memphis Bridge and commonly referred to as The Iron Bridge.  The name was changed again to The Frisco Bridge when the Harahan Bridge was built in 1916.  But no matter what name you call it, it is considered one of America's great bridges.

The Frisco Bridge was the first bridge built on the lower Mississippi, and the only bridge south of St. Louis when it opened in 1892.  Building it was a monumental undertaking.  The US Army insisted on a 770 foot clear span for river navigation, and at least 75 feet of vertical clearance under the bridge.  The result was that the Frisco Bridge had the longest span of any bridge in the US at this time.  In order to secure a building permit, city officials insisted that the bridge somehow would carry pedestrian and buggy traffic as well as trains.  Thus the deck was built somewhat wider than would have been required for a single railroad track.  As a result, two way buggy traffic was periodically allowed.  If a train needed to cross the bridge, wagon and buggy traffic was stopped and cleared from the bridge, and then the train was allowed to cross. 

The Frisco Bridge The Frisco Bridge - 1891 Frisco -Construction 1891 Frisco - Construction 1891

Architectural Elevation Drawing

The Frisco Bridge is 1895 feet long, was built of steel and cost $3,000,000.  It was built by master bridge builder George S. Morison and the Kansas City-Memphis Railway-Bridge Company.  On some early postcards you will see a 5th name for this bridge - The Kansas City and Memphis Railway Bridge. 

Plan Drawing 1891 The Frisco - Dedication The Frisco The Frisco Postcard

The United States allowed its bridge inventory to go without inspections during much of the twentieth century.  Many bridges deteriorated to a dangerous level before problems were discovered.  The Frisco Bridge deteriorated to the point that a 10 mile per hour speed limit was posted.  Repairs have now been made and the traffic restrictions have eased.   The Frisco Bridge is listed among the Top 10 Bridges worldwide in the Nov. 2010 issue of Train magazine "70 Great Railroad Engineering Feats: Bridges & Viaducts"

Frisco - Construction 1891 The Frisco 1901 Frisco- Construction 1891
The Harahan Bridge   ... Rock Island Bridge  ... The Missouri Pacific Iron Mountain Bridge

This is the only railroad bridge between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico that is also used simultaneously by pedestrians and vehicles.   It was originally named The Rock Island Bridge and was renamed after James T. Harahan, the president of Rock Island Railroad was killed four years before the bridge was completed.  Ironically he was killed when his car was hit by an oncoming train.   On postcards this bridge is sometimes called The Missouri Pacific Iron Mountain Bridge.  Completed in 1916 the bridge was structurally advanced for its time, although 23 workers of the steel company lost their lives during its construction.  In 1917 cars and trucks were allowed to use the bridge, single file, driving on a narrow, one way wooden "roadway" that was suspended on the OUTSIDE of the bridge.  There was only a short railing on the outside edge of the road.

James T. Harahan   

It wasn't until 1949 when the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge opened, that drivers had a much safer means of crossing to Arkansas.  Freight trains continue to use the Harahan Bridge.  The main bridge structure is 2,548 feet long.  The bridge spans match the lengths of the bridge spans of the older Frisco Bridge.  This was required by the US Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the piers would line up so as not to encroach on the navigation channels. 

The Harahan The Harahan Construction Harahan 1950

  Dedication Plaque

In 1928 the eastbound highway lane, which consisted of wooden planks over a steel frame, caught fire near pier #1 (near the Memphis side).  The eastbound lane was totally consumed in the fire along the entire length of the 790 foot span.  The westbound lanes were burned an additional 180 feet to the west of pier #2, destroying the roadway on part of the 621 foot long span.  The bridge was closed for over a year.  A total of 950 tons of new structural steel was installed and a more fire resistant roadway was installed.    Afterwards traffic on the Harahan continued to increase substantially.  By the time the Memphis-Arkansas automobile bridge was built in 1949, the daily volume of automobiles using the Harahan 's two lanes had increased to 11,000.  Stalled vehicles and slow farm tractors frequently caused substantial delays.

When the Memphis-Arkansas bridge finally opened,  some farm vehicles continued to use the Harahan until 1954 when all the old  "suspended" highway lanes on either side were removed.  Some of the concrete for these old lanes still exists, along with the ramps that carried the traffic up to the bridge.  A short section of pavement for the westbound lane still exists on the east end of the bridge.


The Harahan now sports a new roadway ... a pedestrian and bicycle crossing.  Opened in 2016 it's now called "Big River Crossing" and is the longest pedestrian-bike bridge across the Mississippi.  The views of the city and the surrounding areas are beautiful.  At night the bridge is illuminated with "The Mighty Light" show - a magnificent LED display of the Harahan Bridge (and the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.  Every night - on the hour, from sunset to 10 PM.  (Photos will be added - when available)

Big River Crossing


The Memphis and Arkansas Bridge  ... Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge ... Old Bridge

This bridge has 5 names: Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge, Memphis & Arkansas Memorial Bridge, and now a new name,  The Old Bridge.  The Memphis-Arkansas Bridge was built in 1949 as part of the US-40.  It replaced the narrow traffic lanes that were attached to each side of the Harahan Bridge.  It was built before the introduction of the Interstate Highway System, so the span was not built to Interstate standards.  It lacked the concrete barrier between the different directions of traffic and they were added later.  It was also built with a sidewalk on either side of the roadway.  They are also now separated from the traffic lanes by concrete barriers.  However sidewalk travel has been prohibited on the bridge. 

     Memphis-Arkansas Bridge


This bridge cost $10.5 million and as part of Interstate 55, it connects Arkansas with Tennessee.   Unfortunately it was not built to withstand an earthquake and can't be retrofitted with seismic protection.  When this bridge opened it meant there were now three bridges at this location - approximately 150 feet apart.  The upstream structure is the Harahan Bridge.  The Frisco Bridge is the middle structure, and the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge is next in line.  As of 2007 the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge continues to serve as a vital automobile conduit for cross-river traffic.  It carries 50,000 cars each day - only about 5,000 fewer than the newer Hernando de Soto Bridge to the north.


<  The Commercial Appeal published a 28 page souvenir edition in 1949 to celebrate the opening of the new Memphis and Arkansas Bridge.  This very rare edition is posted in its entirety below.  Great articles and vintage advertising.  The files have been made very large so that they will be easy to read.  Please be patient while the pages load.

 ... Collection of Dave French.

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Hernando De Soto Bridge  ... The "M" Bridge   ... The New Bridge

The Hernando De Soto Bridge opened in 1973 and carries more than 55,000 vehicles each day.    It is referred to as the "M" Bridge because the arches resemble the letter M.  Many Memphians call it the "New Bridge" simply because it's newer than the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge.  And it's also referred to, with a slight wink, as "The Dolly Parton Bridge."   The bridge is named for 16th century Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto who explored this stretch of the Mississippi River, and died south of Memphis.  Because the I-40 crossing over the Mississippi is a vital structure for the traffic and freight in America, it was determined in the 1990's that the Hernando De Soto Bridge should be retrofitted to withstand an earthquake.  Several phases of the project have been completed.  This project is federally funded at 80% and the total cost will be in excess of $175 million.

        Hernando De Soto Bridge


At night, the bridge is illuminated by 200 sodium vapor lights along its "M" structure.  The big "M" on the bridge has become a symbol of the city.   It was first lit in 1986 after $373,000 in private funds had been raised to fund the cost and installation of the lights.  Pilots complained that the lights made navigation through the piers difficult because the lights reflected on the water.  The city installed a remote switch to toggle the lights on and off briefly while a vessel passes under the bridge.

The Kate Adams and the Idlewild ...

Before there was a bridge, the only way to get to Arkansas from Memphis was to take a boat - or a long drive north and cross at the St. Louis Bridge.  To fill any demand for travel across the river to Arkansas, Steamboats made regular calls at Memphis.  Two ships were noted for this service.

The Kate Adams

The Kate Adams steamboat was built in 1882 by the James Rees & Sons., Pittsburg for Maj. John D. Adams and named for his wife. He headed the Memphis & Arkansas City Packet Co. The ship was one of the fastest of her type.  The Kate Adams made semi weekly trips to Arkansas.  She burned to the water's edge in 1888 near Commerce, which is 40 miles south of Memphis.  Twenty-three persons, a great majority of them colored, were drowned or died from exposure.

 The Kate Adams


The Idlewild steamboat took up the slack when the Kate Adams burned.  She operated as a passenger ferry between Memphis and West Memphis and also hauled cargo such as cotton, lumber, and grain.  The ship was built by James Rees & Sons Company in Pittsburgh for the West Memphis Packet Company in 1914.  The ship was constructed with an all steel superstructure and asphalt main deck.   Her first service was on the Allegheny River before coming to Memphis.  The Idlewild was licensed for 1600 passengers and she also took a small number of vehicles on to her restricted foredeck and alongside her boilers. 

The Idlewild - 1914

Belle of Louisville

The ferry business at Memphis ended when a bridge finally connected the two states.  In 1925 the Idlewild was sold and became an excursion boat up and down numerous rivers.  Eventually the city of Louisville, Kentucky purchased the ship and did a major renovation.  She's still in operation with a new name (Belle of Louisville) and holds the all-time record in her class for miles traveled, years in operation, and number of places visited.

Belle of Louisville


   Kate Adams

The Idlewild

Idlewild - 1920

Budget Crossings

The Master Bridge Builder

George S. Morison was the master bridge builder in America and his record is unrivaled or unmatched.  The period of his building marks the transition from wrought iron to steel in bridge construction, and Morison was the great pioneer in the use of steel.  The Memphis Frisco bridge, the longest truss span in America when completed, practically set the standard for later steel bridge specifications.  At the time of his death he stood at the very pinnacle of the engineering profession. He was regarded as the leading bridge engineer in America, perhaps in the world, and had an international reputation as an expert in railways and waterways.


       George S.Morison

Bridge Memorabilia

Cup Engineer ID Spoon Spoon Spoon

Train Tk Opening Day Passes Key Chain Opening Day Bridge Ticket Plate

Souvenir Coin 1892 Souvenir Coin -back Souvenir 1892 1892 Article 1892 Opening Day Memorabilia

   Drawing 1891

Harahan Bridge

Memphis and Harahan Bridges

Commercial Appeal Article 9-15-1977


3 Bridges Souvenir Miniature 1909 Great Bridge 1901 Great Bridge Stereo

1910s Memphis Bridge 1892 Ribbon 1969 Construction 1949 Construction 1949 Construction

1948 Construction      

1948 ice on River




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