The late Zelmer Tidwell was paid $3 a day as foreman and his workers $1.75 a day when Blount County’s covered bridges were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
And supplies were just as inexpensive. The 42,000 board feet of lumber required for Horton Mill Bridge’s original town-truss style was bought at $17 per thousand. All work was done strictly, securely and solidly "by hand" without benefit of power tools.
Fast forward nearly a century later, to restore the three remaining covered bridges and make them safe for traffic has cost more than a half million dollars in a combination of Transportation Enhancement Funds, National Covered Bridge Restoration monies and local funds.
Blount leaders said that money will be repaid eventually by tourism dollars to the local area. But everyone interviewed believes the worth of repairing such great symbols of historical significance is simply "priceless."
"The covered bridges of Blount County have more than the draw as historical landmarks. They were the lifeblood of our communities for a time that has passed. These bridges represent a way of life our community remembers so well," noted Sharon Rose Murphree, president of the grassroots group Friends of Blount County’s Covered Bridges that is instrumental in pushing the rehabilitation to come to fruition.
"Preserving them will provide a historical picture not afforded to many landmarks that have been lost as progress has taken its roots in our society. Visiting a covered bridge conjures thoughts of a time when life was slower. That is something all of us can appreciate.
"The visitors these bridges bring to our county are a positive boost to our local economy."
Other officers of the Friends group include Larry Clowdus, vice-president; Barry Johnson, second VP; Janis Paterson, secretary; and Jana Thomas, treasurer.
"From the standpoint of the Chamber, we not only think of the bridges as a vital part of the history of Blount County but as a major part of our local economy since tourism is crucial to us," agreed Donny Ray, executive director of the Blount-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce. "There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have people from South Carolina, Georgia, all the states, and from foreign countries, coming into the Chamber seeking information on the covered bridges and how to get to them."
Horton Mill Covered Bridge is located just to the left of Alabama Highway 75 about five miles north of Oneonta. The current bridge, built in 1934-35, replaced an older one built around 1895 that served a grist mill and small community about one-eighth mile downstream.
Horton Mill is known as the highest covered bridge above water (around 75 feet!) still in use in the Southeast.
Swann Bridge is located one mile west of Cleveland just off Alabama 79, and is the longest in the South with a 324-foot span.
The smaller Easley Bridge is north of Oneonta (on U.S. Highway 231 between Oneonta and Cleveland) in the small community of Rosa (turn onto the road beside Pine Grove Baptist Church). It is the shortest of the bridges at just 95 feet, but may be the most picturesque of them all. It is a town-type bridge, 14 feet wide and just 18 feet above the river. It was built in 1927-28 shortly before the other two.
All bridges are clearly marked with signs along the main highways. Maps to the bridges are available at the Blount-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce office across Alabama 75 from the Blount County Courthouse. These maps were designed by the Friends group.
According to Blount County Engineer Winston Sitton, the county originally applied for Transportation funds to replace roofs and do other "cosmetic" work on the bridges in 2003. But, by 2009, all three covered bridges had been closed to traffic because of structural issues.
"We had to make the decision to close the bridges just like we would any other bridge we inspect because of their age and the general degradation of the bridges and their supporting structures," Sitton explained.
Bids were opened by the Blount County Commission on September 22, 2011, and Bob Smith Construction, Trussville, began work on Swann and Easley Bridges simultaneously November 2011.
Smith’s construction company has many local ties to Blount and the bridges. Smith himself grew up in the Rock Springs area of the county. Project Manager John Friedberg Jr. is married to a Blount native, and Superintendent Eric Nordgren and his wife Becky also have Blount ties.
Smith’s Office Manager Les Neel, also a Blount resident, noted the company especially enjoyed working with Sitton and previously with county engineer Richard Spraggins (before his retirement), and Blount Engineering employees Glenn Peek and Meg Jackson, as well as on-site inspector Gary White.
"They’ve done a great job for the county," Neel stated. "Glenn did good estimates on how much lumber was needed for work at each bridge."
Those replacement timbers had to be ordered from the Pacific Northwest and, after they were planed to size, taken to Shelby County where they were treated for a longer life, and then later were treated with a fire retardant.
The Easley and Swann Bridges were opened back to traffic shortly before the Blount County Covered Bridge Festival in October with a dedication ceremony headed by Probate Judge and County Commission Chairman Chris Green.
The Horton Mill Bridge was scheduled to be reopened to traffic by the time this article was published. The Horton Mill renovation was a bit more extensive than the other two, Sitton explained. At one point, visitors were awed by workers in a scissor-lift rising from the river bed 70 feet below to the underside of the bridge.
I was privileged to interview Zelmer Tidwell in the mid-1980s about his tenure as construction foreman of 12 of Blount’s covered bridges including the three still standing. Mr. Tidwell passed away in 1987.
He remembered all the timbers and materials for the bridges were hoisted from the ground then by ropes. Beams and latticework were held together by large bolts with the nuts on the outside to keep them from being stolen! Absolutely no large machinery was used in the original construction.
Only one man was seriously injured during Tidwell’s tenure as bridge superintendent. The late Julius McCay, one of the carpenters, lost his footing while atop Swann Covered Bridge and fell. He was unconscious for several hours, but soon returned to work. Legend (as recounted in the book "Country Roads" by Carolynne Scott) has it that many of the other construction workers’ lives were changed by the beautiful prayer McCay recited while he was unconscious!
Tidwell said it took a crew of 15 men one-and-a-half months to complete Horton Mill Bridge including the time for construction of the off-center stone support pillar.
Tidwell used dynamite to "pit out" the large boulder in the river to provide a level foundation for the bridge’s laid-stone support pillar.
When I asked him about the deep gorge spanned, Tidwell simply said, "I just threw me a couple of braces across. We had to build it part of the way and then move on up and work on the other."
That work ethic was exemplified by the workers who completed the bridges’ most recent renovations, Judge Green explained.
Those who would like more information or a map to Blount’s Covered Bridges may contact the Chamber of Commerce where maps are available at 205-274-2153 or their website at www.blountoneontachamber.org. The Friends group can be contacted via their Facebook page.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.