Building Bridges

Keesler Bridge in 2010, infrared photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

“I remember walking over to River Road with Mama to see the new bridge (Keesler Bridge) they were building across the Yazoo River. She liked to tell us about the big steamboats which used to come down the river hauling cotton and about the showboats which would dock down by the Reiman (later Greenwood Leflore) Hotel and they would attend performances on them at night. They used to turn the bridge to let the boats go through. She told us that Yazoo meant ‘river of blood’ and that the Indians had had a big fight, filling the river with blood, giving it its name. I think that story was a little bit fabricated.”

Riverboats at Greenwood, circa 1896. Photo from the collection of Imogene Lewis. The 1899 iron bridge has not been built yet, so location is difficult to determine, but this was probably shot from the riverbank behind the present-day Court House, looking east.

Steamboats docked on Front Street, circa 1896. From the collection of Imogene Lewis. This time you're looking west, downstream on the Yazoo.

Can you imagine watching the Keesler Bridge going up? In my mind’s eye, it is altogether impossible to picture that stretch of the Yazoo, curving through Greenwood, without the iron superstructure of “The Bridge.” And that’s how we thought of it, growing up, and how I still think of it, thanks to Sara. The other two spans were “The New Bridge (Veterans’, linking Walthall and Poplar) and “The Highway Bridge” (Hinman, on the 49/82 Bypass). If you referred to “The Bridge,” everyone who had any sense knew which one you were referencing. To me as a child it was both awe-inspiring and terrifying, a daily presence that allowed us to scoot in and out of Greenwood and North Greenwood without a second thought. But for the first sixty years or so of Greenwood’s existence, the only way across was a rickety ferry boat, Howell’s Ferry, which shoved off at the base of Cotton Street and docked who-knows-where on the wild north bank of the river. Mayor Staige Marye threatened to open a private toll bridge if voters didn’t approve an 1899 bond issue; they did just that and the narrow iron structure went up the same year. Its central pier was the same one you see supporting the Keesler Bridge today, but the rest of the old bridge was either torn down or dynamited (accounts vary) in 1924.

The original "iron bridge," circa 1899. Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, The caption on this postcard is in error, as the bridge did not exist in 1895.

It was just too skinny and too scary for all the auto traffic moving between booming North Greenwood and downtown to suffice. Work on the new bridge began immediately and was completed in just a matter of months, so Sara would have been around 3 or 4 on those strolls with Jessie. Enough to make an impression on an eager little mind and seal that big bridge in her heart forever.

By the early 1990s, neglect had left it in deplorable and dangerous straits, and the city and county leaders actually discussed tearing Keesler down. I’ve picked up the phone many a time and heard many an angry screed from Sara, but never, never did I hear her light up the phone lines like she did when that knuckleheaded discussion reached North Greenwood. She was livid that anyone would even consider such a desecration and was ready to march down to City Hall and the Court House and emasculate anyone who so much as loosened a bolt on the bridge. And, thank goodness, she wasn’t alone in her fury. She and a lot of other concerned and fed-up bridge devotees brought all talk of tearing down that fine old span to a screeching halt, and money was found to restore it for years to come. Sara was the master of the well-timed tantrum, none more so than the Great Keesler Bridge Face-Off.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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