A silly superstition predating the Civil War once held the town of Pine Bluff hostage. Never underestimate the power of folklore to drive human behavior.
Have you heard stories about Pine Bluff’s sawdust bridge? Ask anyone with deep roots in Jefferson County about the sawdust bridge. What you’ll hear is a ghost story.
It all starts with a man named Dexter Harding, one of the earliest citizens in Jefferson County. Born in Massachusetts in 1796, Harding grew up in meager circumstances. During the War of 1812, when Harding was sixteen, he joined the Army in the Regiment of Volunteers of New York as a drummer boy. After his discharge in 1813, Harding ended up in Kentucky, where he met and married Jane Allen.
Dexter Harding and his wife traveled to Pine Bluff in 1850. Congress had passed a law that year which enabled Dexter to be eligible for a War of 1812 land grant. He acquired a 160-acre tract of land southeast of Pine Bluff that included a small lake, which eventually became known as Harding Lake. Harding built the town’s first sawmill on the south bank of the lake, along with a three-room house for his family.
Harding’s business thrived, providing lumber for the city’s homes and businesses from 1850 to 1860. The sawdust generated by the sawmill had to go somewhere, so Harding instructed his workers to dump it in the lake on his property. The sawdust accumulated in the lake for a few years until it stretched across to the other side. Eventually, a road from the north bank to the south was built on top of the accumulated sawdust. This became the soon-to-be infamous sawdust bridge.
At the time, the sawdust bridge was the only way to travel to Pine Bluff from the south. There was just one problem. Building a road on sawdust isn’t the same as building a road on dirt. The sawdust bridge was inherently unstable. No matter how you crossed, by foot or in a wagon, the bridge would shift up and down. People dreaded crossing its moving, creeping surface. It was bad enough in the daytime, when the snakes and the alligators lurked nearby as the bridge shifted. Crossing at night was even worse. Reports of strange lights and weird noises resulted in plenty of ghost stories.
The stories spread, so much so that Pine Bluff stopped growing for a time. Early Arkansans believe the bridge was dangerous enough that they decided not to settle there. The stories were likely false, but the consequences were devastating.
The lake was drained around the turn of the century. Today, Harding Drain, located near the Pine Bluff Convention Center, is all that’s left of the original lake. The sawdust bridge was abandoned when Main Street was opened.
What became of Dexter Harding and the property he acquired by land grant? Harding died in 1862 and was buried in Bellwood Cemetery. Harding Avenue was named after him. His house stood at 1109 Texas Street until 1968, upon the death of Blanche F. Edgar, the last Harding heir to live on the property. The original three rooms of the thirteen-room structure were marked, dismantled, and stored. In 1973, the Urban Renewal Agency purchased the property, and the Pine Bluff Convention Center and Civic Center were built there. In 1975, the Jefferson County History Commission Committee raised funds to match a grant from Arkansas Bicentennial Celebration Commission to erect the original materials from the Harding house on a city-owned lot across the street from the Jefferson County Courthouse on Pine Street. This dwelling was chosen because it was the oldest house in town. The Dexter Harding House Tourist Information Center opened on July 8, 1985. A portrait of Dexter Harding, painted by his famous brother artist, Chester Harding, was hung over the fireplace in the entrance room. In 1976, the Bicentennial Commission installed an historical marker about the Sawdust Bridge on State Street near the original location on south side of the Pine Bluff Civic Center.
This episode of the Arkansas PBS show Once Upon a Time in Arkansas offers a closer look at Dexter Harding, his sawmill, and the silly superstition about the sawdust bridge.
Sources: Pine Bluff Downtown Development, Inc., Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Arkansas Public Television