When it opened in 1892, the Great Memphis Bridge across the Mississippi River was the longest bridge in North America. When it was constructed, it carried a single rail line high across the river, and that's all it needed to do, because nobody at the time had cars.
Over the years, however, railroad traffic increased, so city leaders commissioned the construction of a second bridge to run parallel to the Frisco Bridge (as the first one came to be called). When it opened in 1916, the Harahan Bridge carried two railroad lines.
But still, there was no roadway for cars. If anybody with an automobile wanted to cross the river — and really, what was the point? — you loaded your car on a ferry and had it hauled to the Arkansas side.
But this wasn't exactly convenient, so sometime in the 1920s, engineers attached one-way roadways to the outside of the Harahan Bridge. You drove westward along the north side of the bridge, and if you survived that harrowing journey and thought you could handle your fear of heights one more time, you came back on a similar roadway on the other (south) side of the bridge.
I don't know who designed this system, but it was constructed from wooden planks mounted to metal beams, with a flimsy-looking railing being the only thing keeping your car on the road. The journey was especially interesting if a heavy freight train was rumbling across the bridge at the same time, barely 20 feet away.
Of course, the Harahan was eventually replaced with the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, which had no railroad tracks, but carried four lanes of cars. And today we are in the process of transforming the old Harahan Bridge into a bicycle and pedestrian path, so Memphians can walk from downtown all the way to California. The whole project is known as the Big River Crossing, and I suggest you read about it.
A Memphis detective named Homer Wells and his brother, Tazwell Wells, worked for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad in the 1940s and 1950s, and served as night watchmen on the Harahan Bridge. I presume there were similar guards on the nearby Frisco Bridge, but I just don't know. And I'm not really sure what it was they were guarding.
But a former Memphian named Don Valdez, now living in Hot Springs Village in Arkansas, was looking through his mother's belongings after she passed away a few weeks ago in Memphis. Violet Wells (also known as Faustine to her friends and family) was the oldest daughter of Tazwell Wells, you see, and Don found this early, faded photograph of the Harahan Bridge under construction. Presumably the family had it because of the grandfather's early work on, or with, the bridge.
If you look carefully, you can see one pier and the superstructure of the Frisco Bridge, dimly visible behind the Harahan Bridge.
Don tells me he often accompanied his grandfather to the bridge at night, when he was working as the guard. He had this to say about it:
"Mom had this really old photo of what appears to be the Harahan Bridge under construction. This is the bridge I used to patrol with Granddad when I was a kid. I would shoot pigeons off the trusses with the old .22 rifle we had, and Granddad and I would run a long fishing line down from the middle of the bridge to catch catfish."
Many thanks for sharing the picture, Don.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DON VALDEZ.