Petit Jean Bridge receives new home- for the third time!

The Petit Jean Bridge in front of Danville City Hall. Photos courtesy of J. Randall Houp

Yell County, Arkansas. Home of Mattie Ross. And Rooster Cogburn, who saved her life. There are some things about the county that make the people become that of true grit: hard working and honest, and valuing their history.  The Danville-Mickles Bowstring Arch Bridge is one of those bridges that is characteristic of the historic places that people work hard to preserve for it has a unique history that belongs to the county, especially when an event is tied to the bridge’s story. The bridge was built by the King Bridge Company in 1880, contracting to representative S.A. Oliver to build the 100-foot long bridge over the Petit Jean River at Danville at a cost of $3100. The bridge remained in service until its relocation to Mickles in 1922 (which included being disassembled and being stored two years beforehand.)

At each of the two sites, a tragedy occurred, which scarred the county and its bridge in terms of history. In June 1883 a mob lynched John H. Coker and Dr. John Flood after they (together with Rial Blocher) conspired to allow Jack and Bud Daniel to escape from the local jail located next to the bridge in Danville. Blocher’s life would be spared, only to escape from jail in September and disappear forever. Both Blocher and the Daniel Brothers were wanted for the murder of Bill Potter. At its new home in Mickles, a tragedy occurred on the bridge in June 1951, when Charles Osburn fell through the bridge with his tractor, killing him instantly and injuring two others that were with him. He was only two days shy of his 16th birthday. This is in connection with the five floods between 1904 and 2008 which spared the bridge.

In 2006, a historic survey was written and submitted to the state historic preservation office, which was later forwarded to the National Park Service, who listed the bridge on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.  After years of fundraising and pursuing grants and support from the private and public sectors, the days of the Petit Jean Bridge spanning the same river for 133 years at two locations are officially numbered.

On 13 October, the bridge was taken off the banks of the river, loaded onto a semi-truck and hauled back to Danville to be set on new concrete piers. The process of bringing the bridge back home to Danville took only 30 minutes. Part 3 of the bridge’s life is about to start. Using the bridge as a tourist attraction, the bridge will be spanning the green lawn of the town’s city hall, with bike trails encircling and even crossing it, with plans to have the structure ready for use next year. For the bridge, it has already accomplished two feats in its extended lifespan: it is the second oldest bridge left in Arkansas and is the only bridge in the state to have three different homes. For the latter, it is rare to see a bridge be relocated more than once because of the stresses on the superstructure caused by providing restraints on it, being lifted by crane and even the travel. While such multiple relocation attempts have failed with other historic bridges, like the Ellingson Bridge in Allamakee County, Iowa, the Petit Jean Bridge was one of the rare occurances where relocation for the third time was not a problem.

We’ve seen many bowstring arch bridges being the center of attraction for parks and bike trails, used as exhibits or picnic areas. The Petit Jean Bridge has now joined the ranks, while at the same time, its history will be shared with others who may not have known about it until now. As Yell County has numerous historic bridges still in use or reused for recreational purposes, it is not surprising that people take their historic artefacts seriously. And if that is not enough, it has garnered one more fame- apart from that of True Grit: its nomination for the 2013 Ammann Awards for Bridge of the Year and Best Example of a Restored Historic Bridge. Whether it wins in one or both categories depend on your vote in December.


The Author wishes to thank J. Randall Houp for providing information about the bridge via mail and allowing use of the photos. More photos and facts about the bridge can also be found here