Partners in Preservation: The Rediscovery of the First Bridge over the Cumberland River

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 10

Phillip Hodge
Tennessee Department of Transportation

In the fall of 1838, thousands of Cherokee passed through the city of Nashville on what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears – the result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act that authorized then President Andrew Jackson to forcibly move Cherokee and other native peoples from their homelands. After reaching the public square, the Cherokee passed the Davidson County courthouse and crossed the Cumberland River on the Nashville Toll Bridge. Built fifteen years earlier in 1823 by the Nashville Bridge Company, it was the first bridge over the Cumberland River in Nashville, or anywhere else in its reaches. It was the intersection of these two stories – the Trail of Tears and the Nashville Toll Bridge – that created new partnerships and provided a unique historic preservation opportunity.

Downstream side of the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge from the Gay Street Connectory. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Bridge Engineering Record.

Downstream side of the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge from the Gay Street Connectory. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Bridge Engineering Record.

Until just a few years ago, it’s safe to say that hardly anyone had thought much about the old Nashville Toll Bridge since its demolition in 1851. That is, until 2012, when Pat Cummins and Toye Heape of the Nashville-based Native History Association began researching the route of the Trail of Tears through Davidson County. They knew from newspaper accounts of the time that the Cherokee passed through the public square, which is in roughly the same location now as it was in the 1830s, then turned east and crossed the river. They also knew the approximate location of the bridge, but didn’t have any idea there was anything left of it. Then, while surveying the riverbank from the Gay Street Connector, near the modern-day Victory Memorial Bridge, they noticed the top of what appeared to be a massive masonry structure poking out of the riverbank. This discovery led them to research the Nashville Toll Bridge and, while they were primarily interested in its connection to the Trail of Tears, they learned much more than they bargained for about the history of Nashville, historic bridge engineering, and the nameless people lost to history who physically built the bridge – working class Irish masons from the Philadelphia and enslaved African Americans from nearby Edgefield Plantation.

Lewis Wernwag’s “New Hope” design, which was based on the bridge he built over the Delaware River in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Lewis Wernwag’s “New Hope” design, which was based on the bridge he built over the Delaware River in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Pat and Toye’s research started with the Nashville Bridge Company, which was chartered in 1819 for the express purpose of building a bridge over the Cumberland. The design of the new bridge was based on a patented design held by Lewis Wernwag, a famous 19th century bridge engineer known for designing and building long-span wooden bridges. The bridge at Nashville was based on Wernwag’s bridge over the Delaware River in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which was a six-span, covered wooded bridge that sat on stone piers and abutments.

View of the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge today. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Bridge Engineering Record.

View of the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge today. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Bridge Engineering Record.

Much of what we know about the Nashville bridge comes from the 1819 construction contract and descriptions of the structure published in newspapers of the time. The superstructure consisted of three wooden arch spans, each 187’ long, for a total length of approximately 560’. The bridge was 40’ wide, contained two carriageways and two footways, and was supported by three stone piers and two abutments that stood as high as 80’ above low water. The bridge operated for 28 years and saw Nashville become an important commercial town. However, as river traffic increased, so too did the size of the vessels steaming up and down the Cumberland. With the completion of a taller suspension bridge in 1850 that would allow steamboats to pass underneath uninhibited, and completion of the city’s new wharf in 1851, pressure from the public, merchants, and steamboat captains led to the dismantlement of the 1823 bridge. All traces of the bridge were dismantled and removed, or fell into the river and sunk to the bottom of the channel, except, that is, for its massive stone abutments.

TDOT Maintenance personnel removing a large tree growing out of the corner of the abutment. Image courtesy of Burel Tidwell (TDOT).

TDOT Maintenance personnel removing a large tree growing out of the corner of the abutment. Image courtesy of Burel Tidwell (TDOT).

Pat and Toye collaborated with Historic Nashville, Inc. on the preliminary research and, due to the connection with the Trail of Tears, also contacted the National Trails branch of the National Park Service which manages the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Together, Historic Nashville and the National Park Service funded an assessment of the ruins by James Barker, an engineer and expert on Lewis Wernwag bridges. Barker visited the site in late 2013 and, sure enough, confirmed that the ruins are indeed the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge.

The ruins lie within the state right-of-way for the Victory Memorial Bridge and are therefore owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. With Barker’s confirmation in hand, Pat reached out to TDOT Commissioner John Schroer in late 2013 who expressed interest in preserving the structure and immediately directed TDOT Maintenance personnel to clean up the site – including the removal of a massive tree growing out of the top corner of the abutment and threatening its structural integrity. Then, in 2014, recognizing the importance of the site to the history of Nashville and to the Trail of Tears, Commissioner Schroer entered into an agreement with the National Park Service that committed both agencies to work cooperatively to preserve and interpret the abutment for the public. Since that time, TDOT Maintenance has continued to monitor the site and keep it clean, while TDOT’s Cultural Resources personnel have been developing a plan to guide the long-term management of the abutment. By this time next year, if not sooner, we hope to have a modest viewing plaza installed at the site, complete with interpretive exhibits.

The rediscovery of the Nashville Toll Bridge and the partnerships it has generated have provided an opportunity to better understand the Nashville of the first half of the 19th century – a city that, much like today, depended on the safe and efficient transportation of people, goods, and services. Unlike today, however, it also depended on the combined resources and labor of the enslaved, immigrant communities, and a growing upper class of planters and merchants who funded economic development projects like the Nashville Toll Bridge, where all of these interconnected threads come together. The massive stack of stones that sat quietly on the riverbank for 160 years can now speak to us about our proudest moments and the most shameful mistakes of our young nation.

Looking down on the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge from the modern-day Victory Memorial Bridge. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Engineering Record

Looking down on the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge from the modern-day Victory Memorial Bridge. Photo courtesy of Martin Stupich and the Historic American Engineering Record.

Acknowledgements: The following agencies, organizations, companies, and individuals have provided information, resources, or other assistance in documenting the history of 1823 bridge and developing the management plan: Native History Association, Historic Nashville, Inc., National Trails Intermountain Region – National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record, Martin Stupich, Metro Historical Commission, Metro Greenways Commission, Tennessee Division of Archaeology, Tennessee Historical Commission, MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation, Laura van Opstal, and New South Associates.

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