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The Great River Road-Arkansas National Scenic Byway is part of a ten-state driving route along both sides of the Mississippi River, from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. In Eastern Arkansas, the route travels through ten counties that are along the river or historically associated with the river.
The route began in 1938 when the Mississippi River Parkway Planning Commission was formed through the urging of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. After more than ten years of discussion, a feasibility study was completed in 1951 by the Bureau of Public Roads (the predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration), and the National Park Service. The study recommended that, rather than constructing a new parkway, a scenic route be achieved by designating and upgrading existing routes and linking them with new construction where necessary. By the late 1950s, the green-and-white pilot’s wheel logo began appearing along designated roads in each of the ten states, linking them to form the Great River Road.
The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC) became the coordinating agency for the ten-state route. Each state has its own commission established by state statute or by governor’s executive order, with the state chair serving on the national MRPC board of directors. In Arkansas, one commissioner is selected by the governor from each of the ten counties along the route.
During the 1970s, federal funds were made available to assist in developing the route, and more than $314 million was authorized by Congress for the Great River Road. Arkansas projects along the route included the visitor center at Lake Village (Chicot County) and the bridge over the White River at St. Charles (Arkansas County).
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Transportation established a National Scenic Byway program to recognize outstanding driving routes throughout the country. The national MRPC set a goal to have the routes in all ten states designated as national scenic byways. The Great River Road segments in the first four states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa—became national scenic byways in 2000, followed by Arkansas in 2002. This designation allowed states to compete for federal grants to expand the roadways and add amenities such as signage, scenic overlooks, interpretive centers, restrooms, parking areas, and more.
Designated routes must possess at least one of six intrinsic qualities—archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic—to become a national scenic byway. While the Arkansas route has been documented to include all six qualities, primary focus is on the history and culture along the Great River Road, including how land and lives were shaped by the river.
The Arkansas portion of the route includes roads in Arkansas, Chicot, Crittenden, Desha, Drew, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips and St. Francis counties. The route begins just north of Blytheville (Mississippi County) and travels through Osceola (Mississippi County), Wilson (Mississippi County), Marion (Crittenden County), West Memphis (Crittenden County), Hughes (St. Francis County), Marianna (Lee County), Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), Elaine (Phillips County), St. Charles, DeWitt (Arkansas County), Dumas (Desha County), Arkansas City (Desha County), McGehee (Desha County), Lake Village, and Eudora (Chicot County). In addition, official loops or spurs take visitors to other cities within the ten designated counties.
For additional information:Arkansas Delta Byways. Eastern Arkansas Tourism Promotion Association. http://www.deltabyways.com (accessed August 19, 2008).
Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce and the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Parkway for the Mississippi, A Report to the Congress. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1951.
Hawkins, Ruth, and Nancy Clark, eds. The Great River Road-Arkansas Corridor Management Plan. Jonesboro: Arkansas Delta Byways, 2002.
Mississippi River Parkway Commission. The Great River Road Interpretive Plan and Tool Kit. Minneapolis, MN: Mississippi River Parkway Commission, 2004.
National Scenic Byways Program. http://www.byways.org (accessed August 19, 2008).
Ruth A. HawkinsDelta Heritage Initiatives, Arkansas State University
Last Updated 12/31/2010
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