Crossing Saline River at Jenkin’s Ferry

-- New Bridge will be where History Was Made

By Jim Lancaster

Crossing Saline River was not easy for the early settlers of the area of Arkansas now designated as Grant County. Frontier wagons and 
horses forded the river at shallow places and hunters and trappers used wooden canoes. But in rainy seasons when it was flooded or 
too high and swift, they probably didn’t cross the river at all.

With the recent announcement that the Highway 46 Saline River bridge at Jenkin’s Ferry State Park will soon be replaced with a $3.4 
million structure, another chapter of the history of this Saline River crossing is about to be written. History has already been made 
at this site several times over, but crossing the river there now has become so easy that the hardships of the early settlers are 
easily forgotten and the news of a bridge replacement is hardly noticed.

The earliest records about this river crossing at the Grant County Museum relate to a map that showed that there was a ferry downstream 
from Pratt’s Ferry (Prattsville) on Saline River that was operated by Thomas and William Jenkins. The ferry operated by the Jenkins was 
just north of the current bridge on Highway 46, but the home of the Jenkins family was several miles west on Cox Creek near what is now 
Taylor’s Cemetery, which is near Leola.

The Museum record shows that in 1849 William Jenkins sold some property, including the ferry, to Hugh McWhorter, but the Jenkins family 
may have continued to operate the ferry. Following the death of William Jenkins, his widow, Jane Jenkins took over the operation.

A descendant of the Jenkin’s family later wrote the following comments about her great-grandmother: Jane Jenkins was a tall, smiling 
woman bubbling with stories of old adventures. She was hale and hearty and could walk three miles to a neighbor’s house and back, right 
up to the time she passed away in 1899. She operated the ferry for thirty years after her husband died and carried on those arduous 
chores alone. Oftentimes Jane rode a horse-drawn wagon three miles to the ferry for the daily crossings, carrying a tiny baby in her 
arms. She would put in an entire day propelling the rope-controlled craft from one shore to the other, besides caring for her growing 
brood. She smoked an old stone pipe filled with homegrown tobacco.

A hundred and five years after widow Jenkins died, the exact location of the ferry crossing is hard to recognize now that trees have 
grown there on the river banks. But if a visitor to Jenkin’s Ferry State Park looks just behind the metal interpretive markers, the 
cuts in the river banks can still be seen where the ferry was docked and accessed. Some old-timers have “recollected” that in low water 
times the horse-drawn wagons often forded the river at this same location.

The Museum records show that after Jane Jenkins retired, a man named Wade Giles took over the operation of the ferry – then Giles later 
sold it to Joe Blundale, the last operator. The ferry operated until the first permanent bridge was built in the early 1900’s.

A GCM black and white photo of the steel bridge at Jenkin’s Ferry that some senior citizens of Grant County still remember, shows a date 
on the back of the photo of “circa 1920’s.” And there is a hand-written note that pointed to the stone Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry Civil 
War Marker that can be seen near the bridge in the photo, and that the stone war marker was placed there in 1928 – so the photo had to 
have been made after 1928. There is no record of who made the photo, but such a black and white photo could have been made anytime 
between 1928 and 1966 when the bridge was demolished.

This steel bridge built in the early 1900’s may have been the first permanent bridge over Saline River there, but records of the Civil 
War Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry show that the Union Army had built a pontoon bridge (floating bridge) at Jenkins’s Ferry. And that battle 
happened on April 29/30, 1864. The records show that after the bloody battle, the Federals destroyed the pontoon bridge, but technically 
it would be accurate to say that the pontoon bridge of the historic battle was the first bridge at Jenkin’s Ferry.

One GCM written record of the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry and the pontoon bridge there reads: The next major episode of the War for Company 
F occurred April 30, 1864, at Jenkin's Ferry, Ark. Both Federals and Rebels moving toward Little Rock had to cross the Saline River, with 
the Federals planning to get there first, cross and burn the bridge, thereby stopping the Rebels. The nightmare of rain and mud slowed 
and exhausted them to the extent that the Rebels were able to pick up stragglers at the end of the column. They both arrived at nearly the 
same time and the skirmish was fought in knee-deep mud and thick fog - everyone shot their weapons not being absolutely sure at what. In 
the end the Rebels had 1,000 casualties and the defenders 700, including the stragglers they had lost on the three day march from Camden, 
Ark. Once the Federal troops crossed the Saline River, they did cut the bridge loose and burn it. The Rebels could not follow.

The narrow steel bridge that was built in the early 1900’s provided an easy river crossing until it was replaced in 1966 with the 2-lane 
concrete structure that is still in use, but is about to be replaced. The 1966 bridge was only a part of the rebuilding of State Highway 
46 from Sheridan to Leola – a crooked, red gravel road that was dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter. It had no elevated roadway 
through Saline River bottoms or Lost Creek bottom, so in wet seasons the water was frequently over the highway – often shutting off the 
traffic until the waters receded.

With the 1966 highway construction came two new concrete bridges on Lost Creek and five new bridges in Saline River bottoms plus a dump in 
the lowland that is high enough to prevent the highway from getting under water when the river floods. And residents shouted “hallelujah” 
when the red gravel that caused all of that dust and mud was covered with “blacktop” (asphalt) – and the trip from Sheridan to Leola became 
a pleasant experience.

The exact location of these bridges in relation to the Ferry site is interesting. The first steel bridge was located right beside the ferry 
crossing on the downstream side. The concrete bridge that is there now was built beside the steel bridge on the downstream side before the 
steel bridge was demolished. Now, the new, proposed bridge will be built beside the current bridge, again on the downstream side. So while 
each bridge is generally at the same site, each bridge seems to get a little further downstream on the River.

Today in the 21st century, whether the river is flooded or nearly dry; people pay little attention to crossing the Saline River at 55 MPH 
or more on a smooth bridge, in an air conditioned automobile – what would widow Jenkins think?