Lessons from the Cotter Bridge

The Ruthven Bridge, as it has been officially called since 1976, is a familiar landmark to visitors and residents of north central Arkansas.  It has an interesting history, not only for its design and construction, but also in how it was authorised and its subsequent history.

Arkansas did not establish a State Highway Department until 1927.  Before that time the counties were responsible for building and maintaining the roads.  One of the Department’s first tasks was to identify places where major bridges needed to be built.  One of those sites was the White River at Cotter, west of Mountain Home.  (It’s the same White River, and not far from the site, of the real estate development that the Clintons made famous in the Whitewater scandal.)

Unfortunately the State Highway Commission had put the bridge at Cotter at the bottom of the list.  This was remedied by Judge R.M. Ruthven, who pocketed the report before the Commission met.  Unaware of the priorities of the report, the Commission approved the bridge and construction began.

The bridge was designed by James Barney Marsh, who used a patented design for this reinforced arch bridge.  The rainbow concrete arch bridge was meant to be an economical substitute for the steel arched bridges at the time, and had the added advantage of being more corrosion resistant.  In addition to the novel design, the bridge was built by first putting in place the steel arch reinforcement and then using that to hang the forms and pour the concrete for the rest of the bridge.  This eliminated the use of formwork built from the river bed; the White River’s wild swings in level made that a risky proposition.  (Today bridges across rivers and wetlands are generally built from the top down for environmental reasons.)

The bridge was completed in 1930.  It eliminated significant detours during flooding; the next bridge crossing was upriver at Branson, 100 miles away.  One would think that such an improvement would have been welcome, but traffic was low because the locals preferred to use the ferries, which were paid ferries and slower.  The State Highway Department found this frustrating; one highway engineer stated that “If Baxter County people want to new improvements on their highways, they will have to patronise those already made…”  The Department was not at a loss for a fix: they paid off the ferry operators to get out of business, the last one for USD250.00.  With that traffic picked up, and it remained the main crossing between Baxter and Marion counties until the 1980’s.

It’s strange that, in these days of “free stuff” most systems, religious and secular, need a payment.  Beyond the usual griping about taxation, we pay a great deal of “rent” for many things: housing, Internet and data service, utilities, and the like.  Most religious systems are this way.  They require that we do certain things to get a temporal or eternal reward.  Ever wonder, for example, why Muslims radicalise and then kill others so quickly?  Part of that is that both killing and dying for Allah in jihad is the one sure “straight shot” to Paradise for Muslims.  It’s a steep price for them and for us, although I suspect they won’t find what they’re expecting when they’re ferried across the river into eternity.

Christianity has never been like this because Jesus Christ paid the price for our sin on the Cross.  “The Divine Righteousness which is bestowed, through faith in Jesus Christ, upon all, without distinction, who believe in him. For all have sinned, and all fall short of God’s glorious ideal, But, in his loving-kindness, are being freely pronounced righteous through the deliverance found in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-24, TCNT.)  That work is complete.  We don’t have to pay the ferry operator anything to get from this side of eternity to the other.  In fact, like the residents of north central Arkansas, we don’t have to take the ferry; the bridge was built and paid for.  “But, when Christ came, he appeared as High Priest of that Better System which was established; and he entered through that nobler and more perfect ‘Tabernacle,’ not made by human hands–that is to say, not a part of this present creation. Nor was it with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, that he entered, once and for all, into the Sanctuary, and obtained our eternal deliverance.” (Hebrews 9:11, 12, TCNT.)

Many of you—and I know this was an issue in my own family—have been trying to get to where you want to go by paying something, whether money, time (think about all that “volunteer” work you’ve done to pad your resumé) or whatever.  But the most important destination can be had for free; the choice is yours.

If You’re Tired of Paying the Ferry, Click Here

Most of the material for this piece came from Witcher, T.R. (2016) “Arkansas’ R.M. Ruthven Bridge.”  Civil Engineering, July/August, 42-45.  The photos are mine.

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