Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Old Railroad Bridge

In 1839, the first local span across the Tennessee River was opened for traffic. Originally the bridge served wagons and livestock, as well as trains. Much of the bridge's history is lost to time, but we do know that in 1864 Union Gen. John Thomas Croxton placed his men at each end of the edifice in order to prevent Confederate soldiers and supplies from crossing the river.

A streetcar line opened in 1904 and crossed the bridge until 1933 when Wilson Dam siphoned most of the traffic from the older structure. L&N Railroad continued to use the bridge for the larger part of the 20th century, but abandoned the structure over 20 years ago.

At that time, local residents banded together to form the Old Railroad Bridge Company, an organization dedicated to saving the historic span. Among the members over the years have been Ray and Charlotte Lawson, their daughter Annette Faulkner, Billy Don Anderson, Kevin Bardon, James Bedsole, and current president Rilly Winkle. Despite the money and effort put into the project, L&N decided to remove the rotating span that reached from Patton Island to Florence, leaving only the Sheffield-Patton Island link standing.

In 2005, the City of Sheffield officially leased the bridge from the organization; now the Old Railroad Bridge Company is asking the town to purchase the structure and add it to their stable of parks. Sheffield is the most financially strapped city in the Shoals, but the purchase of the bridge is not an offer the town should refuse. Once Sheffield takes total control of the edifice, the state Historical Commission has promised a grant to build an observation platform at the Patton Island terminus.

Ownership of the bridge will also give Sheffield the legal footing to arrest and prosecute those responsible for recent graffiti and other vandalism to the structure. Currently, only video cameras donated by Tim Zuelke offer any protection against those who have repeatedly vandalized the Ashe Boulevard entrance.

It speaks well of Sheffield Mayor Ian Sanford that he is willing to work to make this purchase possible. With the coming of the new river walk, the 170 year-old Railroad Bridge will be another jewel in the crown.

Our sympathies to the family of Doyle Truitt.