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Covered bridges back in business

For the first time in more than five years all three of Blount County’s historic covered bridges – Easley Bridge, Horton Mill Bridge and Swann Bridge – are again open to traffic following major renovations.

Repairs were completed to Swann and Easley bridges last fall and those single-lane wooden spans were reopened in October. Horton Mill Bridge reopened March 11.

Horton Mill 11

Horton Mill Bridge (David Haynes)

These are the last three historic covered bridges in the state that carry daily traffic and are all within a few minutes drive of each other. This makes the historic bridges a perfect destination for a one-day outing from most places in Alabama.

Blount County has for years promoted itself as the “Covered Bridge Capital of Alabama,” but the title rang hollow while all three of its remaining bridges were closed in recent years.

The problems started in the summer of 2007 when vandals damaged Horton Mill Bridge, located off Alabama Highway 75 a few miles north of the county seat in Oneonta, forcing officials to close it for safety reasons. When 2009 inspections of Swann and Easley bridges found structural problems these were also closed for safety reasons.

A long process followed of first soliciting grants to fund repairs, letting bids and awarding a contract for the needed repairs. The $469,000 construction contract to renovate all three bridges went to Bob Smith Construction of Trussville. The total cost for all repairs to all the bridges was approximately $540,000, including the county’s expenditures and federal money from the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program and Transportation Enhancement Funds, Blount County Engineer Winston Sitton said.

Easley Bridge 5

Easley Bridge (David Haynes)

Sitton said Smith Construction went “above and beyond” all his expectations in restoring the bridges and that all three are today in better shape now than they have been for decades.

According to Sharon Murphree, president of Friends of the Covered Bridges of Blount County, there were once a total of 13 covered bridges within Blount County’s borders.

All three remaining bridges are of the same design and construction – called “Townley Truss” – and all were built between 1927 and 1935 by Zelmar Tidwell and his 15-man crew. The timber to build the bridges was felled and the lumber milled in the areas nearby each site.

Sitton explained that the wide planks arrayed in a diagonal, criss-cross pattern along the sides of these bridges carry the weight, unlike later designs which support the weight using a steel framework overhead or concrete underneath. The roofs of the covered bridges were needed to keep rain and weather off these supporting timbers to prevent rotting, he said. Each of the bridges has a metal roof similar to a barn roof, plus metal covering the side timbers.

The design has proven to be a good one. All three bridges have been in almost daily use for more than three quarters of a century. Certainly few non-covered bridges built in the 1930s are still in use today.

Blount County hosts a Covered Bridge Festival each fall which includes driving tours to all three bridges as well as other events. A “Covered Bridge Trail” gives visitors clear and easy-to-follow directions to each of the three bridges.

Most visitors will want to begin their covered bridge tour at either Swann Bridge or Horton Mill Bridge, because Easley Bridge is roughly halfway between the two.

Swann Bridge 4

Swann Bridge (David Haynes)

Swann Bridge, which spans the Locust Fork of the Warrior River near Cleveland, was built in 1933. It is situated at the bottom of a scenic gorge downstream of towering bluffs and the dancing whitewater of a wide shoal. This section of the river is probably the most popular whitewater canoeing and kayaking destination in Alabama and it’s not unusual to see whitewater enthusiasts putting in or taking out at this scenic bridge. At 330 feet in length, Swann is the longest covered bridge in Alabama.

Horton Mill Bridge, located about five miles north of Oneonta, was built in 1934-35 and is just off Alabama Highway 75. The 220-foot span towers more than 70 feet above the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River, making it the highest covered bridge over a waterway in the United States.

Easley Bridge in the Rosa community is the smallest of the three at just 95 feet in length. It was built in 1927 over Dub Branch, making it the oldest of the three, having been in service for 86 years.

Whether beginning at Swann Bridge or Horton Mill Bridge the distance between the two, including a stop at Easley Bridge, is less than 14 miles.

Republished with permission from Alabama Living Magazine

Story and photos by David Haynes

Fast Facts

  • These are the last three historic covered bridges in Alabama that carry daily traffic.
  • All three bridges have been in almost daily use for more than three quarters of a century.

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