Many of us drive over bridges every day. We tend to take them for granted. But Black History Month is the perfect time to explore the history of bridge building in our area.
The roots can be traced back to Horace King, a former slave who mastered the art of bridge building. You can learn a lot about him by visiting a local museum in Pine Mountain, the town once called Chipley.
One block off the main drag through town you’ll find the newly expanded Chipley Historical Center. It’s historic in itself. The building used to be the old city hall and former city jail. The newest portion of the Historical Center used to be a drug store and Coca Cola bottling company.
The featured exhibit currently on display in the center showcases the life and legacy of Horace King, a slave brought to this area from South Carolina in the 1830’s by his master, John Godwin. Godwin was a successful bridge builder who taught King the trade.
Cindy Bowden is the curator of the Chipley Historical Center and explains the unique relationship between Godwin and King. “He went from being an enslaved person to working with his master at that point in time, and then to actually taking over the company and becoming equals with his master who, by the way, helped him gain his freedom.”
So what led to bringing the Horace King exhibit to Pine Mountain?
Bowden says, “Since Horace King’s son, George, did the engineering on one of our stores, I thought it was a perfect way to get people invited and help people understand what happened during the Civil War, before and after, to a very, very important man in our area.”
The store Bowden is referring to is the Cat’s Meow, a two-story brick and stone building on U.S. 27 in downtown Pine Mountain. “Originally it was run by the Murray Brothers,” according to Bowden. “They had a general kind of hardware store and they hired the King Family Construction Company to do the building.” It was eventually sold to the Kimbrough Brothers who ran it for decades.
But it was bridge building for which King was most famous. That part of his life is a prominent feature in the exhibit. King supervised the construction of what is now called the Dillingham Street bridge that connects Columbus and Phenix City.
The first bridge was started in 1832 and finished the following year. It was over 900 feet long. “It was quite an engineering feat,” says Bowden. “Not only did you have to go up high, but it was at that time the longest bridge that had ever been built. Also, he built a parallel bridge right next to it. The pylons are still there today. That was the railroad bridge that went across the river.”
The original Dillingham Street bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1838. It was rebuilt by King. The second bridge lasted until it was destroyed in the Civil War. The current cement bridge was constructed in the early 1900’s.
Horace king’s legacy transcends just bridge building. He is also credited with designing the spiral staircase in the Alabama State Capitol building. Bowden says when they were doing renovations in the capitol, “they found the lattice work that Horace King was very famous for in his bridges underneath those staircases. So not only did he do bridges but he also designed buildings.”
King also went on to serve as an Alabama state legislator.
The Horace King exhibit will remain on display at the Chipley Historical Center in Pine Mountain until May 27th. Admission is free.