They’ve Got it Covered

Americana, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on December 24, 2000

Of Alabama’s 11 remaining covered bridges, Blount County in the north-central part of the state is home to three, all of which are listed in the National Register of Historic Placesa fact in which Blount County residents take great pride.

“A lot of places have hills and dales,” points out Warren Weaver, Blount County’s archivist, “but not covered bridges. And what makes ours even more special is that they’re still a part of our road systempeople drive across them every day.”

In the county seat of Oneonta, the Chamber of Commerce slogan, “Your Bridge to a Brighter Tomorrow,” holds forth the bridges as the rallying symbol for the rich rural heritage of Blount County, settled in 1818 and named for the then governor of Tennessee.

“I was born in 1933,” comments Pat Bellew, chamber president, “the same year that the present Horton Mill Bridge was started and Swann Bridge was completed. I can’t imagine my life without these bridges. Metaphorically and in reality, they’re what links us to our pastand we’re reminded of that every time we go over one of them.”

Located off U.S. Highway 231 three miles north of Oneonta, the Easley Bridge is the county’s oldest and shortest covered bridge. Its single span stretches 95 feet across the Dub Branch tributary and, except for closing briefly for repair work, it has been in continual use since 1927.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Swann Bridge, named for owners of the surrounding land, and the second longest covered bridge in Alabama. This structure measures 324 feet across and is located on a section of the Locust Fork of the Little Warrior River, a popular stretch of water for canoeists and kayakers.

Built in 1933, Swann Bridge originally was dubbed the Joy Bridge, because it led into the tiny settlement known as Joy. Visitors to Blount County easily can locate this bridge near Highway 79 and the town of Cleveland.

But the best known of Blount County’s covered bridges is off Highway 75, five miles north of Oneonta. Spanning 220 feet, the Horton Mill Bridge stands 70 feet above the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River, giving it the distinction of being the highest covered bridge above water in the entire United States. It’s also noteworthy as the first bridge in the South to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1894, Thurman Horton, an enterprising businessman, built the Horton Mill Bridge about three-quarters of a mile downstream from the existing covered bridge which replaced the original in 1934. The area was known as Sand Valley and lay at the foot of Sand Mountain.

Prudence Horton, a retired school teacher, talks about her grandfather’s efforts to obtain payment for the bridge. “The government people here didn’t have the money to pay him when Grandpa got the bridge finished, so he and another fellow set off on horseback for Birmingham to collect what was owed him. Grandpa was expecting to be paid in paper money, but when he got there, they paid him in silver. By the time they got back home with all that money, the horses’ hides had been rubbed raw from the weight of it.”

Horton’s Bridge, as with all other covered bridges, was roofed to keep supporting timbers dryand therefore free of rot. Until Horton built his bridge, the hill dwellers could cross only at a single ford in Little Warrior River, and then only when the water was at a safe level. Horton’s bridge gave the mountain folk easy access to town and to the thriving businesses he operated alongside the bridge.

“Grandpa’s store was right by the creek,” Horton recalls. “There was a grist mill, a cotton gin, and a sawmill, and there was a big waterwheel and pulleys of all sorts that ran from building to building.”

Thurman Horton’s great-great-granddaughter, Sherry Jones, of Acworth, Ga., recently spearheaded the family’s efforts to locate and identify the remains of the original bridge and store complex. “This was really important to me, to hang onto that piece of the family history,” she says.

Prudence Horton nods vigorously, “Why, losing these bridges would be losing something we’d never have again. They’d put up concrete ones and it’d never be the same.”

The admirers of Blount County’s covered bridges intend to do everything possible to assure their continued existence. As Jan Fink, curator for the Blount County Memorial Museum, puts it, “Any good we can bring from yesterday, we need today.”