By Tom Adkinson
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A statement of the obvious earned the Big Dam Bridge its name and helped cement its identity as the longest bridge in North America built just for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Citing the bridge’s name in conversation with people unfamiliar with the 4,226-foot-long structure can prompt a giggle or smirk until you explain why “Big Dam Bridge” actually is its name.
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, a major proponent for development of a regional trail system, was responsible for the name – although accidentally. In a planning meeting when spirits were down, Villines rallied the troops and declared, “We are going to build that dam bridge.”
In a description from the Big Dam Bridge Foundation, Villines explains, “There was a pause and then laughter when people realized that I said ‘dam’ instead of ‘damn.’”
The bridge they envisioned would soar 30 feet over the Murray Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River (the big dam in question), which is just a few miles upstream from Little Rock and North Little Rock. Just imagine the Corps of Engineers meeting when that idea was first proposed. A pedestrian and bicycle bridge atop a federal dam certainly wasn’t part of the dam’s original concept or anywhere in the Corps of Engineers’ playbook.
The idea did take root, and $12. 8 million later, the Big Dam Bridge is a popular attraction. The bridge’s special virtue is that it links about 20 miles of riverside trails and helps connect 70,000 acres of city, county, state, and federal park land.
Rent a bike (one source is Rock City River Outfitters in the multi-business Little Rock River Market) to ride to the bridge. Cross the river downtown on the Clinton Bridge at the Clinton Presidential Center and then pedal upriver through North Little Rock. Cross back over the river on the Big Dam Bridge and then roll downriver back into Little Rock.
You’ll encounter walkers, joggers, skaters and other cyclists enjoying the Arkansas outdoors. Pause to do some bird watching, take some panoramic photos or just admire the scenery.
Every September, the Big Dam Bridge 100 attracts upwards of 3,000 cyclists in Lycra shorts for the state’s largest cycling tour. It ends in the Argenta District in North Little Rock.
Special recognitions for the Big Dam Bridge include one of the first Exemplary Human Environment Initiative Awards from the Federal Highway Administration and an Award of Merit on the international level from the Illuminating Engineer Society for the bridge’s LED lighting design.