One-Man Campaign Preserves Treasured Alabama Bridge

Fri October 10, 2003 - Southeast Edition

ALEXANDER CITY, AL (AP) Few people who drove across the old Elkahatchee Creek bridge gave much thought to the beauty down below.

They were more worried about getting across in one piece.

Built in 1931 for $1,500, the 20-ft. wide concrete span represented a daily danger for those going to and from work — especially when 18-wheelers were headed in their direction.

It wasn’t unusual for drivers to stop at one end of the bridge to let larger vehicles move across it from the opposite direction. Tractor-trailers often went over without any cars or trucks ahead or behind.

A new, wider bridge eliminated those concerns three years ago and the one it replaced quickly became a relic destined for demolition.

Although most east Alabama residents knew little about the magnificent supporting arches that held up the old bridge for so many decades, William Jones did.

Jones, an official with the state Department of Transportation, grew up in the area and was well aware of the bridge and its historic importance.

As plans moved slowly toward destruction of the old bridge, Jones launched a one-man campaign to save it for posterity.

He first went to City Councilman I.J. Mobley, who gave a big thumbs up. Jones’ rescue plea then caught the attention of Alexander City Mayor Don McClellan, who is known for supporting worthy causes.

The mayor and the highway engineer began contacting anyone who would listen. They called on state officials in several departments, including the Historical Commission, to see what could be done to save the old bridge.

Their efforts paid off just in the nick of time. Heavy equipment had been moved to the site of the old bridge, but orders were given by the state not to demolish it. Alexander City now is responsible for maintaining the saved structure.

At creek level, the old bridge is an eye-popper because of the three large concrete arches that support the 80-ft. long nondescript surface.

The creek, which feeds into Lake Martin, even has its own mini-rapids. Water splashes and bubbles over shiny rocks just before it slows and flows onward to the huge lake.

Those who fish for bream and bass along Elkahatchee Creek have known about the bridge’s beauty for years. They also know they have to be careful not to gaze too long as they look for dry rocks to stand on before they cast their lines.

“See why I want to save this bridge,” said Jones, who saw it for the first time 60 years ago. “Once you see it from down here, it’s easy to understand why it needs to be preserved.”

McClellan felt the same way and used his political clout to help save it. With assistance from state officials, the bridge was deeded to the municipal government.

In addition to its architectural beauty, the bridge also has another distinction. Most of the arches are filled with dirt — probably because it was much cheaper than concrete during the depths of the Depression in 1931.

Part of the old bridge’s support structure has a rust-colored look, which was most likely caused by water dripping from holes cut in the concrete to relieve pressure from seeping rainwater.

The newer bridge, which has been handling thousands of vehicles a month, lacks the pizzazz of the one it replaced. Its support structures are functional, but they look like erector set pieces — bland concrete settings drilled deep into Elkahatchee Creek.

It may not be long before the out-of-service bridge is added to state and national historic registers as its importance to the area becomes better known.

The city has made the old bridge off limits to anybody who might want to drive or walk across or turn it into a fishing pier. McClellan said a park may be built at the bridge site for festivals one day.