After 74 Years, AR Rainbow Arch Gets Facelift

Mon October 04, 2004 - West Edition

LITTLE ROCK (AP) It was the Great Depression in the railroad town of Cotter and workers there took less than a year to build a bridge with five arches, each resembling a rainbow as they span the White River.

The town is again celebrating the Rainbow Arch Bridge, which 74 years after its construction had a $6.3 million makeover that has taken since the spring of 2002 to complete –– longer than it took to build the 1,850-foot span.

“The bridge, over the years, has become if not the symbol of the city, a symbol of this part of Arkansas,” said Sonny Sharp, who plans the annual Cotter Fall Festival in the town of 1,000.

Cotter was incorporated in 1904 and grew rapidly as a railroad town. The bridge’s five rainbow arches stretched across the White River, providing much-needed transportation across the water.

“There was enormous pressure to be able to cross the river with a little more convenience,” Sharp said. “The only thing was a couple of current-driven ferries.”

There were plans for a vehicular bridge, but they didn’t pan out and there wasn’t enough money to build a suspension bridge that was proposed in 1912. The state Highway Department, then in its infancy, approved a state-owned toll bridge in 1927.

The contract was awarded to Marsh Engineering Co. of Topeka, KS, which was famous for its patented rainbow arch design. The designs are rare today, historians say.

The cost at the time was just more than $390,000. Construction started in November 1929 and workers finished in November 1930. Two men fell to their deaths while building the structure.

The Nov. 14, 1930, edition of the Mountain Home newspaper, The Baxter Bulletin, recounts a two-day opening celebration attended by 4,000 people from seven states.

“A plane appeared out of the cloudy skies, hovered over the new bridge across the White River for an instant, and a stream of poppies cascaded from the cockpit. As the first of the descending flowers touched the magnificent structure, Miss Betty Ruthven, Queen of the bridge celebration said, ’I christen this bridge progress and I dedicate it to service,’” the paper wrote.

“The christening services were impressive and to many of the old settlers of this section who were present, the new bridge seemed unreal. Such a structure even ten years ago was unthought of.”

During the fall of 2000 the bridge was at the risk of being shut altogether.

“Chunks of concrete were falling into the river at one point,” Sharp said. “It was being potentially hazardous and patching became too ineffective.”

The town and state historians tried to decide what to do with the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a national landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The state Highway Department worked to secure federal money to cover 80 percent of the restoration costs. The Hardy Construction Company of Maumelle started work along with the Highway Department.

“We had to replicate everything to the exact way it was,” said Robert Scoggin, who is in charge of historic bridge and houses for the Highway Department. “Everything on that bridge, except for the arches, has been replicated and replaced. It was a huge undertaking.”

Scoggin said historians had a particularly difficult time copying light poles that line the bridge. They had to make hand molds from the originals, he said.

“The company that made them in the 1920s was in Italy and they broke the molds,” Scoggin said. “They were really unique to that bridge and they have nice glass globes that we saved from the originals.”

The Cotter bridge is the first concrete arch bridge that the department had ever rehabilitated.

Another challenge was figuring out a way to support the bridges’ five arches while the rest of the bridge was replaced. They didn’t want to bolt the arches to hold them up because that would cause damage, he said.

“We invented special frames to sit on the arch and hold them because they would have fallen down,” Scoggin said.

Mark Christ, a spokesman for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said the rainbow arch design was relatively popular in the 1920s and 1930s but is rare today.

“It’s a very stately bridge,” Christ said.

For the people of Cotter it’s a piece of their history. Sharp said the bridge’s rededication ceremony was combined with the town’s fall festival this year.

AP Photo: An employee of Hardy Construction in Maumelle, AR, is lowered by crane through an opening in the roadway of the R.M. Ruthven “Rainbow” Bridge in Cotter, AR, to the bridge’s understructure on Mar. 16, 2004. Work on restoring the historic 1930 bridge will be rededicated at the town’s fall festival.