Down South: The Beauty Of Old Bridges
File this column under “Progress.” I guess. I remain a skeptic of much that is new and better and that includes the new bridges going up across Georgialina. Better is not always beautiful. On both sides of the Savannah you’ll see detour markers. Somebody found a big pot of gold evidently because old bridges have been razed to make way for new ones. Bridge rehabitation they call it. Bridge replacement too.
Going, gone, gone are the old rusty steel truss bridges. Up go the wide concrete bridges. The old bridges? Destroyed and removed. That hasn’t always been the case. If you know where to look, you can find old bridges and when you do, see if you don’t find them elegantly beautiful.
In my explorations of back roads I come across their remains. Ghostly, overtaken by woods and vines, they stand alone. No traffic, save a solitary fellow with a camera. The beauty of old bridges should not be lost so easily. The next time you’re driving down Highway 378 from McCormick toward Saluda look to your left as you cross Hard Labor Creek. Through the trees an old bridge materializes like a spirit. Surreal but real, it hosts a deer hunter’s hut-like stand where old cars and trucks once sped. Hard Labor Creek runs on as if nothing has changed, but it has. Icons fall like leaves.
Some cling to existence. If you take Highway 283 out of Plum Branch toward Edgefield you’ll see Key Road to your right. Take it and you will cross an old steel truss bridge over Stevens Creek. Just pass it is a turn off to the right that takes you to another old bridge. Here you can walk out on yet another steel truss bridge and see the Key Road Bridge. Two old steel bridges side by side, twins. One’s for cars, and one’s for couples, bikers, and hikers. At one end of the “walking” bridge is Edgefield County; at the other, McCormick County. The view provides one of those scenes Hollywood would love for one of its old movies.
Yes, old bridges are still with us but on life support. When I see a forsaken bridge clinging to life I conjure up images of classic old cars and trucks. Think about the people, long gone, who depended on those bridges to get from one place to another.
Here’s another old one … Highway 181 crosses a free-running stretch of the Savannah River just below Lake Hartwell. You can see this old steel truss bridge jutting just over the state line into South Carolina. The authorities spared it. As I wrote in my back roads book, South Carolina Country Roads, “Neither you nor I will ever cross that bridge again. Its South Carolina terminus has been cut away. It hangs over the river, a dropping off point if ever there were one. A wide concrete bridge, which seems to be the trend, now, has replaced it. Barriers prevent you from driving onto the old bridge. Drive across this bridge and you essentially walk the plank with a plunge into the Savannah River your fate.” Beside it runs one the new spans that quite simply lacks character. Think of a parking lot.
We lost our covered bridges long ago. Now we’re losing the old steel truss bridges. Sure, they are narrow and creaky but that’s a blessing. Build a wider bridge and man can get his big trucks into places like undisturbed islands. Let those big trucks in and watch how things change, and not always for the better.
A few photographs say more than I can about the need to leave some old bridges standing. Let them watch their new counterparts shoulder man’s burdens. Hang onto a bit of the past; hang on to the beauty of old bridges.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” www.tompoland.net.