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John A. Weeks III
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Highways, Byways, And Bridge Photography
Helena Bridge
US-49 Mississippi River Crossing At Helena
Helena, Arkansas

Helena Bridge

• Structure ID: NBI: 000000000002899.
• Location: River Mile 661.8.
• River Elevation: 151 Feet.
• Highway: US-49.
• Daily Traffic Count: 7,000 (2002).
• Bridge Type: Continuous Steel Truss Through Deck.
• Length: 5,204 Feet, 3,108 Foot Truss, 840 Foot Longest Span.
• Width: 28 Feet, 2 Lanes.
• Navigation Channel Width: 800 Feet.
• Height Above Water: 119 Feet.
• Date Built: Opened July 27, 1961.
The Helena Bridge is a very long bridge. The continuous truss superstructure has 5 spans covering 3/5 of a mile, a total length that is longer than the I-10 bridge in Baton Rouge or the Business US-90 bridge in New Orleans. When you cross this bridge, it seems to go on forever. The river crossing spans from the river flats on the Mississippi side to the levee on the Arkansas side resulting in approach trestle spans are relatively short and steep. Factor in the narrow bridge deck, and you have a bridge that many people find to be a white-knuckle experience.

The second thing you notice about the Helena Bridge is that it is pretty lonely out there. Helena is a very small town, and, at least today, has very little going on. The opposite side of the river has nothing but a small casino. It is true that Helena was a major cotton and shipping center during the riverboat era, but those industries were largely a memory by the time this bridge was constructed in the late 1950s. The net result is a bridge with the lowest traffic count on the lower Mississippi River. One wonders why it was even built. Mark Twain, however, felt otherwise. He stated that Helena occupied the prettiest location on the Mississippi River. Many restored period homes still exist in the city. In fact, Twain helped raise funds to build the nearby Delta Cultural Center.

The Helena Bridge was struck by a dragline crane as it was being towed upriver on July 15, 1997, resulting in the bridge being closed. A temporary pedestrian bridge was brought in to cross the damaged area of the bridge. A shuttle service was established to transport people from the marina on the west side of the river to the pedestrian bridge, where the passengers would cross the damaged section on foot using the temporary bridge, and then be picked up by a second shuttle to be transported to the Lady Luck Casino on the east side of the river. This shuttle service ran during the early morning and late afternoon to allow commuters to get to their jobs on the other side of the river. The bridge reopened on August 4, about two weeks earlier than initially predicted.

This was not the only time that the Helena Bridge was struck by river traffic. In fact, barge strikes are very common despite the bridge being on a relatively straight and calm section of river. For example, at around 2 PM on January 9, 2011, a barge broke away from the towboat ‘Chris Parsonage’, struck a bridge pier, then sank in the Mississippi River. The Arkansas Highway Department checked the bridge for damage. No damage was found, so the bridge was not closed after this accident.

Due to all the barge strikes, the states of Arkansas and Mississippi applied for a grant through the TIGER program, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. A grant was awared in December, 2011, as part of the TIGER III program to install Intelligent Transportation Systems on several bridges over the Mississippi River. The improvements will include dynamic messaging signs, vehicle detection devices, CCTV, highway advisory radio, and other fiber optic connections that would coordinate communication across the bridges, as well as real-time river monitoring systems that will provide information for barges traveling beneath the bridges. It is hoped that these systems will reduce barge strikes and allow highway crews to better respond to and manage any future incidents.

The photo above is a view of east end of the Helena Bridge from ground level on the Mississippi side of the river. This is a short distance telephoto view, which compresses the background making the bridge structure look very massive. I was attempting to get a fairly tight view of the Arkansas state line sign. In retrospect, I wish I had backed off the zoom just a bit so the top of the bridge wasn't cut off.


Helena Bridge
These two photos, and the six that follow, are from the Mississippi side of the river at the east end of the bridge. The photo above is looking west along the south side of the approach trestle. The photo below is a closer view of the bridge piers as seen from the north side of the approach trestle.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos are views from the access road to the Isle of Capri Lula Casino. Traffic traveling eastbound on US-49 uses this access road to enter and exit the casino. The photo above is looking northeast towards the first approach trestle span, with the bridge abutment hidden in the shadows behind the trees. The photo above is the second trestle pier heading eastbound. It was very bright on the day I visited in late summer of 2011, resulting in the background being washed out. The truck in the distance is parked in the oversized vehicle parking lot at the casino.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The east approach trestle has two concrete piers followed by three steel truss piers. The photo above is looking northwest towards the three truss piers. The photo below is a similar view looking west along the length of the approach trestle towards the main river truss spans.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is a closer view of the truss piers supporting the approach trestle. The photo below is the underside of the approach trestle. With only two man parallel bridge girders, this span would be considered to be fracture critical. That is, if either of these girders were to fail, the approach trestle would collapse. The steel does appear to be freshly painted and is being maintained very well, so risk of that happening is remote.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos, and the 10 that follow, are views from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River taken from downstream of the Helena Bridge. The photo above is the last two spans of the west approach trestle and the western end of the main bridge truss spans. The facility located under the bridge is the Helena Marine Barge Terminal, which handles grain, fertilizer, and other farm products. The photo below is the bridge structure at the second main bridge pier on the west side of the river. The dock in the foreground is the Archer Daniels Midland Company soybean plant. The plant consists of 108 concrete silos and four steel storage bins for a total capacity of 7-million bushels of beans. It was the largest soybean processing plant in the world when it was built in the early 1960s.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is the thrid main bridge pier counting from the west end of the structure. The photo below is the forth main bridge pier. These two photos show that the truss is one long continuous structure rather than being a series of smaller trusses set end to end.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is the second bridge span from the west end of the structure. The main river navigation channel passes under this span. The photo below is the third span from the west end of the structure. River traffic can also pass under this span, but it is slightly shallower. The spans to the east are too shallow for barge traffic.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is a view of nearly the entire main bridge truss structure. This view is from about 3/4 of a mile downstream. The photo below also shows a majority of the main bridge truss spans. This view is from about 1,000 feet downstream of the west send of the bridge. There is enough scrub brush along the riverbank that it is hard to get a clear view from ground level. I ended up standing on top of my car for both of these photos.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is the third main bridge pier counting from the west end of the bridge. The photo below are the first two spans at the east end of the bridge. Counting from the west, this is the forth, fifth, and sixth main bridge piers. These two views are from about 1,200 feet downstream of the bridge.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos are looking northeast from Westover Road, which is about a mile from the west river bank. The photo above is the west end of the bridge, while the photo below is a view of the entire truss structure. The concrete silos at the right edge of the photo are part of the ADM soybean processing plant.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos, and the 10 that follow, show a typical bridge crossing heading westbound from Mississippi into Arkansas. These crossing was made around 10 AM on a bright late summer morning in 2011. In the photo above, we are approaching the east end of the approach trestle. We are climbing up the east approach trestle in the photo below.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos continue our westbound bridge crossing. In the photo above, we are approaching the east bridge portal, while in the photo below, we are crossing the first truss span. The first one and a half spans at each end of the bridge has a noticable uphill slope, while the middle span is mostly level.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos continue our westbound bridge crossing. In the photo above, we are passing the second main bridge pier and entering the second bridge span. The bridge deck levels out about half way across this second span. In the photo below, we are passing the third main bridge pier. The bridge deck is level across half of the second, all of the third, and half of the forth bridge spans.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos continue our westbound bridge crossing. In the photo above, we are near the center of the bridge crossing the third truss span. In the photo below, we are passing the forth main bridge pier and approaching the point where the bridge deck starts to slope down towards the west bridge portal.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos continue our westbound bridge crossing. In the photo above, we are passing the fifth main bridge pier and entering the final bridge span at the west end of the structure. In the photo below, we have entered the west approach trestle and are heading downhill towards teh levee on the Arkansas side of the river.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos conclude our westbound bridge crossing. In the photo above, we are approaching the west end of the west approach trestle and west bridge abutment. The wide spot in the road at the center of the photo is the former location of the toll booth. The photo below is a ground level view of the location of the old toll plaza.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is a highway sign located about a mile and a half west of the bridge. It includes a Great River Road sign as well as an America's Byways logo sign. The photo below is a sign located near the former toll plaza for the Trail of Tears Removal Route. This sign was erected by the Department of Arkansas Heritage. It is a local route and not part of either the state Trail of Tears Byway or the Trail of Tears National Historic Route.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos, and the four that follow, are older photos from late fall of 2005. The photo above is a view of the south face of the structure as seen from the Mississippi side of the crossing on the east side of the Mississippi River. The photo above is a view from the south side of the highway looking to the east from the Arkansas side of the river.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
The photo above is a view looking east down the south face of the Helena Bridge. The photo below is the south face of the bridge as seen from the Mississippi side of the river crossing.

Helena Bridge
Helena Bridge
These two photos are views of the Helena Bridge from the traffic deck while crossing the bridge eastbound heading into Mississippi. The photo above is climbing the approach span towards the main truss structure. The photo below is traveling through the massive truss.

Helena Bridge

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2014, all rights reserved.
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