Narrow, crooked and dangerous. That is the way many locals remember U.S. Highway 71 as it passes through Polk County. Generations have passed and years of improvements have changed the complexion of Highway 71 considerably.
Essentially established in 1926, it ran from Krotz Springs Lousianna, in the South, to International Falls Minnesota, in the North. Spanning the Nation from North to South at the Mid section, it runs from Canada, almost to the gulf of Mexico. When looking at a map, it is easy to note that it’s route appears to be a straight line running from the gulf to Canada.
As the Highway passes through Polk county, it bisects the county seat at Mena street. When the railroad, because of a changing national economy, shifted it’s priority from passenger service to freight, Highway 71 became one of the main arteries that feeds commerce in our area.
Highway 71 has been a friend and foe for many generations of Polk Countians. Present day Highway 71 is often viewed by visitors as quite a challenge and they can’t fathom stories of changing a flat on a Model A ford automobile, in the middle of the road, because the twenty two foot wide highway had no shoulder to pull off onto. In many places there just simply wasn’t room for a shoulder. Often times a roadside business, kind of “hung precariously’ on the edge of the road.
Hatton Gap, at the 13 mile marker, is one such place. Locals can remember when there was no wide place to pull over in an emergency. There was the mountain going straight up on one side, and on the other, a sheer drop off down to the railroad tracks. Much of the material for the small pull out that is there now, came from rock slides and road way improvement by the State Highway department. Two of the main arteries of Polk County transportation pass within feet of each other in the gap it’s self. Likely because of a elevation change there, this “bottle neck” named Hatton Gap, is often shrouded in rain or fog during season changes. Though a beautiful place, Hatton Gap requires a elevated level of attention from every driver.
Crossing over a mountain pass one might drive up into low hanging clouds or drive through fog shrouded valleys. The beauty of traveling through the Ouachita Mountains on highway 71 must always be tempered with being on the alert for wildlife crossing the roadway as well as someone suddenly deciding to swerve in, to check out a yard sale.
I hear that our County’s State Highway department is the lowest funded in the State. Could that be possible ? Our County’s topography means that State Highway department road crews have to contend with problems that some other County’s don’t even have to consider. As I see the local crews contending with all manner of weather to make repairs to frost “heaves” and flood damage, it causes me to think. What a monumental task for such a small crew in the least funded County in the State.
These tireless workers for the State often make repairs to pot holes as traffic flows by, barely slowing at all. Most of us have seen a flagger, that is trying to slow down motorist while a repair is under way, drop their sign or flag and run for the safety of the shoulder. Comical, some might say, but a flagger just had to run for their life, because someone wasn’t paying attention.
Good roads and Highways are a critical element of our inter mountain lifestyle, let’s slow down and give a wave to those that work on our roads and highways, they are making life better in the heart of the Ouachita’s.