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Memories: What’s that bridge for and where did it go?

History and items and structures of historic value are all around us every day, whether we’re here in Marion County or traveling anywhere else in the world! And sometimes those pieces of history can be a bit unusual, making you stop and ask… “What in the world was that for?” While some may just be the ghosts of something long-forgotten through time. But sometimes the history is still out there! You just have to do your research, ask around, and find the right person to give you those answers. Maybe someone has documented it somewhere making your quest for knowledge easier. Thankfully, there’s a lot of folks nowadays taking the time to get that information down on paper or in digital form so it’s not lost with time. As is the case with the MarionCountyMessenger.com “Memories” segments, as those of us interested in the history of our hometowns and local area are giving our best historical accounts here for the record.

The coffee table book by Calvin Sneed is on sale now at Barnes & Noble at Hamilton Place…

My friend and colleague in the news and broadcasting industry, longtime WTVC News Channel 9 anchor Calvin Sneed, recently announced he was publishing a book about bridges. Yes, for those that know Calvin, they know he’s best known as “The Bridge Hunter.”Sneed, who recently announced his retirement from the local television station coming up later this year, has been photographing bridges from all around our local area and region for the past five decades. He’s captured the marvel of engineering and beauty of each one in his photographs. In more recent years he’s been posting those photographs on the website Bridgehunter.com, an online community or database of historic or notable bridges in the USA, which earned him the “The Bridge Hunter” nickname.

His book, Building Bridges, which was recently published by Collegedale Press is now on sale for $35 at the Barnes & Noble at Hamilton Place Mall in Chattanooga. And it’s well worth the drive to get your own copy. Other than featuring so many great photographs of bridges from around our local area and region, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it features a beautiful picture of our own recently-fallen lady on the front cover — the Marion Memorial Bridge.

The truss bridge started as a toll bridge for a time and carried U.S. Highway 41 (the Dixie Highway) traffic over the Tennessee River at Haletown for many years, linking motorists to-and-from North to South as far away as Chicago to Miami. The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) determined it was up for replacement, and so in 2012 it was closed to make way for the newer and wider concrete girder span in place now. Unfortunately, efforts to preserve the bridge in place as a pedestrian or ‘walking bridge’ similar to Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge were unsuccessful and despite being on the National Historic Register it was demolished in 2015 after being delisted.

In the reading of Mr. Sneed’s good news about his book release and in working on another ‘Memories’ installment for our series here, it made me stop a moment to think about some lesser-known, but definitely not unseen bridges from our area. And as soon as you see their pictures — you’ll know exactly which ones we’re talking about!

Photo Credit: Calvin Sneed, 2010.

Our first bridge is one you might see wearing a lot of green this time of year from overgrowth of weeds, vines, and other vegetation, but in the cooler months when the leaves are off the trees you can see all of its beauty with ease. And it’s right in plain sight! Matter of fact, it’s not so much of a hidden gem to residents in one local community, but there are many others who may not even know it exists! It’s the abandoned Ellis Cove Road bridge in the Battle Creek community.

1891 was the year of construction for this bridge by the King Bridge Company based in Cleveland, Ohio; however, no one seems to know for sure where exactly it was first built and it wasn’t until around 1930 before it was moved to its current location over Battle Creek along Ellis Cove Road. While the steel truss bridge has been altered numerous times over the years and was abandoned and bypassed by a modern bridge in the 1990s.

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), the state has determined that this bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of its former decorative features, and the fact that it was moved, intact, to its present location almost 40 years after its manufacture, and was still in service almost 60 years after that.

 


Only time will tell what becomes of this bridge, but at 130 feet in structure length by 12 feet roadway width wide, this would be a much easier (and likely economically-friendlier) structure to save and possibly use as a pedestrian bridge or similar in Marion County after losing the much larger Marion Memorial Bridge in recent years. In fact, it should be saved or preserved in some manner. It would be great to see a group of local residents and community leaders get together to make such a thing happen by working to clean up the area around the bridge and raise funds to maybe have it painted, install a trail or path for foot traffic across and even having it painted to further preserve it. One of the first steps, of course, would be getting the span placed on the National Historic Register in an effort to help preserve it even longer! Marion County has done a great job at preserving some of it’s more noticeable gems like The Princess Theatre, Jasper Depot, and most recently the American Legion Post in South Pittsburg…and while this is definitely off the beaten path, it’s too neat and too potentially useful in a recreational sense to simply abandon forever. Preservation of this bridge would be a great way to maybe welcome some tourism to our county with a walking or biking trail through the area. We’ve all probably heard talks about that being a possibility of late, now could we find a way to incorporate this into those plans? Maybe so!

Marion County has done a great job at preserving some of it’s more noticeable gems like The Princess Theatre, Jasper Depot, and most recently the American Legion Post in South Pittsburg…and while this is definitely off the beaten path, it’s too neat and too potentially useful in a recreational sense to simply abandon forever. Preservation of this bridge would be a great way to maybe welcome some tourism to our county with a walking or biking trail through the area. We’ve all probably heard talks about that being a possibility of late, now could we find a way to incorporate this into those plans? Maybe so!

A school bus crosses the Tennessee River on the South Pittsburg-New Hope Ferry. (Contributed Photo)

For our next stop, let’s go downstream on Battle Creek a few miles and very near to its confluence with the Tennessee River at South Pittsburg. If you’ve been around Marion County long enough you’ve likely been to a picnic, birthday party, 4th of July celebration or launched a boat at South Pittsburg’s Rivers Landing boat dock. Maybe you were there admiring the blue beauty of the Shelby Rhinehart Bridge as its signature arch reaches across the water connecting South Pittsburg and New Hope. The “big blue bridge” has become a signature on the landscape in South Pittsburg — as easily defining and of a similar impact as St. Louis’s Arch or San Francisco’s Golden Gate…just without all the tourists given the possible exception of that last weekend in April for the National Cornbread Festival.

Regardless, the bridge has defined South Pittsburg’s skyline for over 35 years now. Before it opened in 1981, traveling across the river to/from New Hope meant you were taking the ferry or driving all the way to Kimball and through Jasper to Haletown to cross Ladd’s Mountain and go around the back way through TN-156 or you better hope the Bridgeport, AL ferry was still running! Not to mention the dangers of the ferry carrying school buses across during the school year. The bridge was very welcomed, for sure. But this isn’t about the Shelby Rhinehart Bridge that we all know so well. It’s about a gone and almost forgotten piece of history! We’re talking about that out of place “tunnel” that appears there at the South Pittsburg River Park…and the bridge piers across Battle Creek right on the river.

I grew up around trains and the railroad. My late father, Fred Carmichael, was a professional photographer by trade, but a railroad man at heart. Unfortunately for Dad, he was several years too late to be a railroad engineer like the one he imagined as a child, but that didn’t stop my Dad, oh no! The “train bug” started with tales from my grandfather who worked for a time on the L&N and only got worse after he received a toy train set for Christmas in 1952. That passion for trains just continued to grow as he entered the world of Model Railroading, eventually helping co-found the Chattanooga Area Model Railroad Club’s in addition to volunteering and working countless hours at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in its early years and becoming a life member of both organizations.

Dad devoted most of his life to collecting stories and accounts, taking photographs of, and collecting relics of all kinds including signs, lanterns, brake hoses, rail spikes, pieces of track, signals, and various other odds and ends from the local railroads — specifically Southern Railway, Tennessee, Alabama & Georiga Railroad’s TAG Route, Chattanooga’s Belt Line railway, and the N.C.&StL and L&N. After he passed away in 2010, I found myself sorting through box after box of railroad history. It’s a good thing I, too, am a “train nut”, because a lot of people wouldn’t understand the value of all this otherwise seemingly a hodgepodged collection of train stuff. And yes, we’re talking LOTS! That’s what leads me to the next stop…

Abandoned arch bridge and overpass in South Pittsburg. (Staff Photo, 2017)

You’ve very likely seen it before and thought, “What was that tunnel for?” Or maybe you’ve heard some wild tell that’s circulated about what it was for. We asked a few people and heard everything from a secret passage on the Underground Railroad to an original entrance to the City of South Pittsburg from boat traffic on the Tennessee River. While both of those would be very interesting historical notes, that’s just not the case. So what is that mysterious “tunnel” anyways? Well, it wasn’t actually a just a tunnel… It’s an abandoned arch-type bridge or overpass for the Sequatchie Valley Railroad. The tunnel formerly carried trackage for the Sequatchie Valley Railroad below (which now follows a different route nearby) and another line was to run above and over it for Southern Railway. It’s similar in design to the tunnel-type bridges you’ve likely seen entering the St. Elmo community from Broad Street in Chattanooga. Same era of construction, too, by the way.

It was built for what’s become known as “the unfinished line to Stevenson, Alabama” — an undertaking by the Southern Railway dating back as far as 1885, though construction only really got underway around 1905. The idea was that Southern would create a new railroad line from Chattanooga to Stevenson, Alabama. At the time Southern was having to rent or lease the use of the very congested Nashville & Chattanooga line (later N.C.& StL, then L&N before eventually becoming CSX) at a cost of $60,000 per year. This new line, at a proposed length of 42 miles, was to stretch from a new tunnel at Lookout Mountain then along present day Highway 41 through the Kelly’s Ferry and Riverside communities to Haletown where it would cross the Tennessee River via an elaborate drawbridge, and finally crossing the Sequatchie River before heading on to nearby South Pittsburg and eventually Stevenson. Ambitious as it was (and with many more structures built along the way), the $2.9 Million dollar price tag was more than the railroad wished to spare and construction stopped a short two years later in 1907 with the project being mothballed completely in 1909.

Abandoned bridge piers at Battle Creek. (Photo by Timothy Daugherty, 2017)

The railroad track was actually laid along a new railbed from Stevenson north to the Sequatchie River as the railroad worked out the plans for the drawbridge over the Tennessee River, which actually required going before the U.S. Congress for approval. In fact, a lot of work was completed right here in our area, but even as ambitious as it was the $2.9 Million dollar price tag for completion was more than the railroad wished to spare after after the Panic of 1907 when in mid-October the New York Stock Exchange fell almost 50% from its peak the previous year.

It didn’t help that the three week period fell during a time the country was in an economic recession and it caused a ripple effect through the nation with many state and local banks and even businesses filing for bankruptcy. And while the railroads were still profitable; their owners, board members, and investors were very cautious as many of them were affected by the financial crisis.

Incidentally, if you want proof of how a financial crisis can change the course of history over the longterm — even if things do eventually improve — despite the country bouncing back and eventually pulling itself out of the Great Depression; to this day Southern Railway’s successor, Norfolk Southern, still leases right-of-way from N&C’s successor CSX. All that remains of the planned line today are a few small visual reminders of what was once to be “the Southern’s” answer to transportation into the Sequatchie Valley.

Aside from the arch at the South Pittsburg River Park, the piers still standing at the mouth of Battle Creek just down from the arch, there’s a few other remnants including large concrete culverts in backyards in Lookout Valley, a 1,100-foot tunnel through a portion of Raccoon Mountain, and a remaining pier in the Sequatchie River behind Parkridge West Hospital across from the current Marion County Landfill. Matter of fact, though it was abandoned in 1909, you can still see trace evidence of the line on a modern day Google Map aerial view. We’ve marked the pier in the Sequatchie River on the map — zoom out and see if you can follow the line from Anderson Ridge near I-24 back to South Pittsburg…

Matter of fact, though it was abandoned in 1909, you can still see trace evidence of the line on a modern day Google Map aerial view. We’ve marked the pier in the Sequatchie River on the map — zoom out and see if you can follow the line from Anderson Ridge near I-24 back to South Pittsburg…



Mostly gone, but not forgotten seems to be the case with many things that still fascinate so many of us! And thanks to folks like Calvin Sneed and countless other historians, enthusiasts, bloggers, authors and photographers who’ve documented, captured in photograph and saved or even published accounts of our history (even in a structural or architectural form like our local bridges); this history can continue to live on for many more generations to come!

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Logan Carmichael

Logan Carmichael is a longtime local radio personality, now heard weekdays on WFLI 1070 AM and 97.7 FM. A native of Whitwell, he started his career as a 'tween' at South Pittsburg's WEPG before moving to the FM airwaves in Chattanooga. A self-proclaimed news junkie and history buff; he eats, sleeps, and breathes all things current events and preserving history through news and photographs. Carmichael, who co-founded MarionCountyMessenger.com in December 2010 to serve the Marion County area with breaking news, weather, and information continues to serve as Publisher of the online news site and often as a contributing author or reporter for certain events or articles.

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