Ghost Bridge to come down but not without a fight.

Ghost Bridge in Lauderdale County, Alabama. Photo taken by Ben Tate

The news of the massive demolition of the historic bridges has raised several eyebrows and are leading to questions as to how to better protect historic bridges from neglect and pointless demolition; especially as there is considerable interest in saving these structures.

The Ghost Bridge, located over Cypress Creek on an abandoned road in Florence in Lauderdale County, Alabama, is one of those bridges that are on the chopping block. Built in 1912 by the Virginia Bridge and Iron Works Company on the eve of the Good Roads Movement, this 140 foot long pin-connected Pratt through truss bridge with Howe Lattice Portal Bracing (with 45° subdivided heel bracing) has a history that dates back to the Civil War period, as this bridge was the second structure at this spot, replacing a covered bridge built  after the war. The covered bridge was built to replace the ford which carried a road connecting Florence and Savannah, Tennessee.  It was the site of conflict near the bridge, as well as several lynchings during the 1920s, resulting in ghosts of Civil War soldiers and people murdered at the bridge site being reported by passers-by. But while the name Ghost Bridge originated from the haunted stories told about the site (which competes with another bridge in Missouri, the Enochs Knob Bridge, now extant), the real name of the bridge was the Jackson Ford Bridge, named after James Jackson, who owned a plantation near the crossing prior to the Civil War.

The bridge has been abandoned since 1996 when the eastern approach was closed to traffic and the western approach was vacated in favor of private property. Now Lauderdale County officials are pursuing the removal of the truss structure due to damage caused by vandalism and liability issues. This has sent alarm bells off among local residents and preservationists who are now fighting to stop the demolition process from commencing. The bridge is the last of its kind in the state that has not been rehabilitated and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And while the county commissioners have signed off on the bridge to a contractor, who has been mandated to remove the sturcture within 30 days, there are a lot of legal issues that were not taken into account, including Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Laws, plus other environmental mitigation laws. Furthermore, those opposing the demolition have claimed that they were not properly informed of the situation with the bridge, let alone were allowed to present their proposal to save the bridge. While the guard railings and decking are being removed at the time of this report, the protesters are planning to stop the process both at the site as well as through the legal system in hopes that there is hope to save the bridge, or if removal is a necessity, relocate the bridge to a site where it can serve as a park.

Oblique view. Photo taken by Ben Tate

I took the opportunity to ask members of the Save the Ghost Bridge Committee if they were interested in answering some of my questions I had about the bridge and the situation involved. Evan Tidwell, who is head of the organization to save the bridge, stepped forward and provided some useful information, which is presented as an interview below. Please note that the content was edited for length.

Why save the Ghost Bridge?

Why do we love it, you mean?  Well, I lived just up the road from it when I was a teenager; it’s actually the first place I drove to when I got my driver’s license.  It has always attracted people; history buffs, ghost hunters, or people who just wanted a cool place to hang out.  It was one of the local “parking” spots as well, so that gives people a very personal attachment to it.  But most of all it’s the ghost stories that people told their kids to scare them as they drove across it.  Those times are good memories for a lot of people.  The bridge and the stories that go along with it is a part of our local folklore, part of the fabric that makes us who we are.
Why was the bridge abandoned for such a long time?

The eastern approach road was closed in 1996, and the roadway deeded to the adjacent landowners who no longer wanted a county road through their property.  This according to the local paper “effectively closed the bridge”.  One of the residents on the west side, however, was against the closing and fought to keep the road open.  Some say it sat there for years because the county just didn’t want to spend the money to tear it down.  However, the gentleman who fought to keep the bridge open passed away in August.  Two commissioners and the Chairman were re-elected in November.  And the announcement that they planned to tear the bridge down came at the end of November.  Purely speculation on my part, but I think that gentleman promised a good fight if the commission had moved to demolish the bridge while he was alive.
When was the issue brought to the county’s attention? To your attention?

I have no idea when it was brought to the county’s attention.  I guess it’s been in the back of their minds since they closed it in 1996.  The Chairman of the County Commission and the County Engineer were involved in the closing, and they are still serving.  Our local newspaper published an article about the bridge at the end of November and that’s how I heard about it.

The newspaper article about the bridge can be found here.

 

Tunnel view of the bridge. Photo taken by Ben Tate

How are you bringing the bridge to the attention of the residents?

Oh, it’s already receiving their full attention.  They have refused to attend our meetings or even discuss the matter.  One or two have stated their opinions in a newspaper interview, but they have not even attended any of the commission meetings to say why they want it gone.

Author’s note: four residents are located at the bridge with one of them favoring repairing the bridge. More information can be found here.
Why are the neighbors (and other people) dead set on seeing the bridge removed? What would it take for them to change their mind?

According to what the commission says they have been told, and according to the residents quoted by the paper, they say it’s because of crime at the bridge.  But according to law enforcement officials, the crime is actually taking place on private property adjacent to the bridge.  (The western approach to the bridge is an isolated dead-end road)   I don’t know what it would take to satisfy the residents, because they have refused to talk with any of us.

There has also been a big deal made about the holes in the wood deck.  But the deck was replaced in 1992, only four years before the bridge was closed.  So the wood is nowhere near as old as some people say.  (The holes were burned or knocked out by vandals, it’s not rotten)  The deck would be the least problematic in a full restoration.  In fact, a wood & steel bridge in neighboring Colbert County is actually being re-decked with fresh timber this month, and that bridge is still open to vehicle traffic!
When will the bridge be removed? What’s being done to stop the process? 

I’m assuming sometime in January, because the original proposal said it would be demolished within 30 days.  There seems to be nothing else to do besides file an injunction to stop the demolition, which is something my group did not want to do starting out.  But we have exhausted all our other options.

According to the latest article by the local newspaper, the contract was signed to demolish the bridge on 14 January.
What would you like to see done with the bridge? 

I’d love to see it renovated and turned into a foot bridge/overlook with a small park and canoe launch at the approach to the bridge.  Getting some lights up out there and clearing out the brush would make it less attractive to the people who want to go out there and do illegal things, namely cooking meth.

 
Have you heard of Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Law and is this being carried out on the bridge?

I think Section 106 only applies to Federal Agencies, but I may be incorrect.  I have repeatedly queried the Tennessee Valley Authority and Army Corps of Engineers, but they maintain they have no restrictions placed on the section of Cypress Creek where the Ghost Bridge is located.  The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has also told the county that they need no environmental studies performed prior to demolition, even though Cypress Creek is home to endangered species of fish, and is the source of the City of Florence’s municipal water supply.  (The intake for the treatment plant is downstream of the bridge)  I’m really concerned about the lead paint on the bridge as well as the creosote used to treat the wood.  If I lived in Florence, I don’t think I would want that in my drinking water!

Author’s Tip on Section 106 can be found here, although a simpler and more elaborate version will be produced and posted here in the future.
If there are people interested in helping you save the bridge, how should they help?

If we are able to delay demolition and get ownership of the bridge, we’re going to need a good grant writer for one thing.  But other than that, every dollar donated and every minute of volunteer time would be valuable to the preservation of this bridge.  It’s going to be a long, expensive, difficult task.  But it would be well worth the outcome.  Another group successfully saved the nearby Tennessee River Railroad Bridge, so we hope we can pull off a repeat.

Author’s note: The Save the Ghost Bridge Organization can be found on facebook with contact information as to how to get involved.

Silohuette view of the bridge’s portal entry. Photo taken by Ben Tate

To summarize, the situation with the Ghost Bridge is dire and the county and some residents are deadset about demolishing the bridge at any cost. Yet if the process is completed, there is a potential that other demolition projects involving historic bridges will proceed without consultation from the public and awareness of the laws that exists that protect historic bridges from being demolished without first conducting surveys that could provide alternatives. Yet the abandonment of the Ghost Bridge to allow it to deteriorate to a point of its removal has led to questions involving abandoned bridges and common sense. While abandoned bridges and leaving them to nature and private owners is one way to leave them in tact for years to come, the issue of liability comes when one uses the bridge (most of the time by trespassing) and vandalize it, making it prone to collapse. An article on abandoned bridges will come in the near future, but we need to take care that if a bridge is vacated, it should be in the hands of an owner who is willing to maintain it without having to deal with such misfortunes as was the case with the Ghost Bridge. And while liability is important for historic bridges, common sense, by not trespassing onto a privately owned bridge without asking, causing damage to a point of no repair, and obeying certain regulations and having a sense of self responsibility is just as important, if not even more important. With the Ghost Bridge, such common sense was missing and that may end up in a piece of history to become a pile of scrap metal.

 

The author would like to thank Ben Tate for allowing for his photos to be used for this article.

 

 

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