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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Bridges of the Lower Chattahoochee River Valley

SOURCES: Images of America: Lower Chattahoochee River by The Columbus Museum and the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, 2007. Historical Development of Bridges, Bridges Database. Horace King, New Georgia Encyclopedia, by Thomas L. French, Columbus and Dr. John S. Lupold, Columbus. 40 Years of Progress Through Construction Vol. I - III by the Hardaway Contracting Company (1951). City of Progress by Margaret Whitehead and Barbara Bogart. Heritage Park: A Celebration of the Industrial Heritage of Columbus, Georgia by Dr. John S. Lupold.


A bridge is a structure built over physical obstacles such as a body of water, a valley, or road, and its purpose is to provide crossing over that obstacle. The first bridges appeared in nature by themselves. A log could fall across a stream and form a natural bridge or stones could fall into a river from a nearby cliff. When humans started building bridges, they built them in simple form out of cut wooden logs or planks, stones, with a simple support and crossbeam arrangement, sometimes with use of natural fibers woven together to hold materials. Ancient Romans were the greatest bridge builders of ancient times. They built arch bridges and aqueducts some of which still stand today. They also used cement which consisted of water, lime, sand, and volcanic rock. Some of their most beautiful bridges were built over ravines while others were built over rivers where no rock or island emerges from the water to carry the piers.

The Caravan Bridge (pictured above), the world’s oldest reliably dated bridge, is a stone arch span over the Meles River in Izmir, Turkey. According to Guinness World Records, it dates from 850 B.C., making it almost 3,000 years old. Between the 12th and 16th century many bridges were built with houses on them. They were a solution for limited accommodation in walled cities and France had as many as 35. By the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution would bring truss systems of wrought iron (an iron alloy with a very low carbon) but it did not have the tensile strength to carry the large weights. Then enters steel, with its higher tensile strength, which replaced the iron and allowed for much larger bridges. Gustave Eiffel, with his fresh ideas, was one of the first to use it.

Horace King (pictured below) was the most respected bridge builder in west Georgia, Alabama, and northeast Mississippi from the 1830s until the 1880s. He constructed massive town lattice truss bridges over nearly every major river from the Oconee in Georgia to the Tombigbee in Mississippi and at nearly every crossing of the Chattahoochee River from Carroll County to Fort Gaines. Born as an enslaved person of African, European, and Native American (Catawba) ancestry in Chesterfield District, South Carolina, Horace moved with his enslaver, John Godwin (1798-1859), a contractor, to Girard, Alabama, where Godwin had the contract to build the first public bridge connecting those two states. King probably planned the construction and directed the enslaved workers who erected that span. Godwin apparently realized King’s intuitive genius as a builder and nurtured those skills. During the early 1840s King served as superintendent and architect of major bridges at Wetumpka, Alabama, and Columbus, Mississippi, without Godwin’s supervision.

John Godwin allowed Horace King and his other enslaved laborers a great degree of freedom, and in 1846 he freed Horace, perhaps to protect this valuable asset from his creditors. King might have simply bought his freedom, but the relationship between the former enslaver and enslaved person remained the same. After John Godwin’s death in 1859, King erected a monument over his grave that declared “the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.” John Godwin is buried in Phenix City in Godwin Cemetery.

In the mid-1850s King built Moore’s Bridge, over the Chattahoochee River between Newnan and Carrollton, and accepted stock in the enterprise as payment. King’s wife, Frances Gould Thomas (1825-64), a free Black woman whom he married in 1839, and their five children are believed to have moved to this site, perhaps by 1858. There they tended the bridge and farmed until 1864, when the Union cavalry burned the span. During this period King moved freely about the South, apparently maintaining a home at Moore’s Bridge and one in Girard. The Civil War (1861-65) brought an economic boom to Columbus, and King, like other local contractors, worked for the Confederacy. He supplied timbers and erected a major building for the Confederate navy there. The Alabama governor pressed King into service, against his will, to place defensive obstructions in the lower Alabama River. King claimed that the federal government owed him, as a Unionist, for the confiscation or plundering of his property by Union troops. Immediately after the war ended in 1865, a year after the death of his first wife, he married Sarah Jane Jones McManus, with whom he had no children.

This image allegedly shows the last horse and carriage team to cross the wooden Dillingham Street bridge before it was replaced with a concrete structure. The image is significant because it graphically depicts the end of an era in the history of the Chattahoochee Valley. Covered bridges, horses and carriages, and even river-borne trade were quickly becoming things of the past at the time it was taken. (Courtesy of Jim Cannon.)

During Reconstruction, King became a reluctant Republican politician, serving twice as member of the Alabama House of Representatives, though he rarely occupied his seat during the initial year of his first term. Instead of politics, he was busy rebuilding wagon and railroad bridges, grist and textile mills, cotton warehouses, and public buildings. Although he should have earned a large income, he actually experienced some economic reverses, perhaps because he accepted municipal and corporate bonds or over speculated as a contractor, or simply because of the depressed economic condition of the region. In 1872, King and his family moved to LaGrange, where he continued to design and construct bridges, stores, houses, and college buildings until his death, on May 28, 1885. Obituaries praising his building skills appeared in the Atlanta, LaGrange, and Columbus newspapers. King’s children—Washington W. (1843-1910), Marshall Ney (1844-79), John Thomas (1846-1926), Annie Elizabeth (1848-1919), and George (1850-99)—continued the work of the King Brothers Bridge Company. They built bridges and various structures in LaGrange, Atlanta, and east Alabama. John T. King served as a trustee for Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) from the 1890s until the 1920s and was one of the contractors who built the Negro Building at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895.

Built in 1837 by a group of businessmen led by Edward B. Young (brother to Columbus' William H. Young), this lattice covered bridge linked Eufaula with Georgia. The bridge's designer was Horace King. It survived many floods only to be eventually swept away by floodwaters. King salvaged the fallen bridge, and with the townspeople's help, it was rebuilt on the remaining piers. (Courtesy of Rob Schaffeld.)

Connecting Fort Gaines, Georgia and Henry County, Alabama, this bridge was undergoing repair due to flood damage when this image was taken prior to 1925. The view is from the Alabama side of the bridge. (Courtesy of the Henry County Historical Group.)

The first Fourteenth Street Bridge was a covered bridge erected in 1856 by John Godwin and Horace King and was funded by the factory owners to carry workers from their Alabama homes to the mills. King built a similar replacement after the Civil War. In 1901, the city constructed a new structure with five 140-foot through-pratt, pin-connected trusses with a wooden floor resting on four concrete piers. This modern bridge was designed to carry the trolley cars to Phenix City. In 1922, the present concrete structure was poured underneath the steer trusses with only minimal interruption of traffic. Four new piers and the four existing piers were converted to filled spandrel arches (seven spans of 17 feet 9 inches and two end spans of 59 feet 9 inches). (Garret & Stack of Atlanta, architects; Hardaway Construction Company, Columbus, builder)

By 1915 pin-connections are almost completely replaced by riveted connections. Some bridge companies experimented with bolted connections, but bolts remained in the minority for many decades. Any pin-connected trusses built after this date are an anomaly. Also in this year, the Tunkhannock Viaduct (pictured below) was completed. This was the largest concrete bridge in the world when finished. A bold engineering expression of confidence gained from previous years of experimentation; it marks the beginning of an era where concrete competes on equal terms with steel as a material for bridge construction. From this point forward to the present day, almost all bridges constructed are either steel, concrete, or a combination of both.

The early 20th century would bring more iron bridges across the Chattahoochee River, along with concrete structures like that of the present-day Dillingham Street Bridge. Steel replaced wrought iron as the material used in most metal bridges. At this same time, concrete begins to emerge as an alternative, and the experimental period in concrete begins to wind down with an adoption of simple reinforcing rods (rebar) as the preferred reinforcing type.

The cantilever bridge was completed in December 1925 at a cost of $125,000. Charles S. McDowell, mayor of Eufaula, had the idea of a new steel and concrete bridge. After being elected to the Alabama Senate, he lobbied for its construction. (Courtesy of Rob Schaffeld.)

The first modern examples of suspension bridges were built in the early 1800s. In 1927, Austin Bridge Co. built a highway bridge across the Chattahoochee River between Neals Landing, Georgia (near Donalsonville) and Jackson County, Florida. The current Chattahoochee River highway crossing in this area is one mile south of the Georgia-Alabama border. This Neals Landing bridge was condemned in 1953 because of a sinking foundation.

This suspension bridge was operated as a toll bridge across the Chattahoochee River eight miles southwest of Donalsonville, Georgia linking Georgia and Florida. The 600-foot main span was situated 80 feet above low water. The bridge was 1,900 feet in length. Tolls were collected until the bridge was purchased by the State of Georgia in 1938.

Chattahoochee River Bridges also can’t be discussed without mentioning the work of Benjamin Hurt Hardaway. He was born in 1866 in Bullock County, Alabama. He attended both Auburn and the University of Alabama. 1891 was the year that marked a turning point for Ben – he crystalized his plans to become a general contractor in construction. In 1910, he was the only bidder on the first concrete bridge built across the Chattahoochee, which opened for traffic in 1912 – the Dillingham Street bridge (pictured above). His contacts became so large in number, he incorporated the business in 1911 as the Hardaway Contracting Company. Heavy emphasis continued on power dams and plants for the next ten years, and the Hardaway organization became nationally known for the scope and quality of its work. Beginning in 1920, the greatest road program the nation had ever know had launched. Mr. Hardaway, Sr. contributed his wealth of knowledge and skill to this type of construction, as well as continuing in construction of bridges, power plants, and dams.

Among the notable bridges built by the Hardaway Contracting Company are: One for Seaboard Air Line Railroad across Chattahoochee River at Atlanta, Fourteenth Street Bridge, Dillingham Bridge, Columbus, Ga., Seaboard Air Line R. R. Bridge at Omaha, Ga., Seaboard Air Line R. R. Bridge and Highway Bridge at Bainbridge, Ga., across Flint River, Bridge at Apalachicola, Fla., for Apalachicola Northern R.R., Causeway for the Highway Department of Florida near Pensacola. Hardaway also constructed two of the most important and beautiful highway bridges in South Carolina, and three in North Carolina.

Trying to capture what the Chattahoochee River means to the region is hard to do. We are tied to the river and inescapably influenced by it. It is our area's most dominant geographic feature and has served as a major source of commerce, industrial development, power, and recreation. The river has also changed the lives of so many people through triumphs and tragedies. Next Week: We will continue delving into a little more of our river history, so stay tuned! Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!

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