Back at the end of October Blount County, AL celebrated the 27th annual Blount County Covered Bridge Festival. The county bills itself the ‘Covered Bridge Capital of Alabama,’ with 3 remaining historic bridges: the Horton Mill Bridge, the Swann Covered Bridge (also called the Joy Covered Bridge or Swann-Joy Covered Bridge), and the Easley Bridge. All are closed to road traffic.
Locals are quick to point out that the three bridges are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, they play a central role today in bringing tourism to the area. In the county seat of Oneonta, the Chamber of Commerce slogan proudly reads “Your Bridge to a Brighter Tomorrow,” and The Horton Mill Bridge is featured on the seal of the Blount-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce.
Blount County was originally home to 12 covered bridges, built beginning in the 1920s. Without any machinery to hoist the beams into the air, the construction teams used ropes to create these massive structures. Beams were bolted together with large nuts to prevent theft during the hard economic times.
Located off U.S. Highway 231 three miles north of Oneonta, the Easley Bridge is the county’s oldest and shortest covered bridge. Its single span stretches 95 feet across the Dub Branch tributary and, until recently, had been in continual use since 1927.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Swann Bridge, named for owners of the surrounding land, and the second longest covered bridge in Alabama. This structure measures 324 feet across and is located on a section of the Locust Fork of the Little Warrior River.
Built in 1933, Swann Bridge originally was dubbed the Joy Bridge, because it led into the tiny settlement known as Joy. Visitors to Blount County can easily locate this bridge near Highway 79 and the town of Cleveland.
But the best known of Blount County’s covered bridges is off Highway 75, five miles north of Oneonta. The 220 foot-long double-span Horton Mill Bridge stands 70 feet above the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River, giving it the distinction of being the highest covered bridge above water in the United States. It’s also noteworthy as the first bridge in the South to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 14 foot-wide bridge, built in 1934-5, replaced an earlier bridge accessing Thurman M. Horton’s water mill complex about three-quarters of a mile downstream. The area was known as Sand Valley and lay at the foot of Sand Mountain.
The bridge is of the “town truss” type. The building crew —”fifteen men working from sunup to sundown”— was supervised by Talmedge Horton, a descendent of T. M’s, along with brothers Forrest and Zelmer C. Tidwell, who also built the Swann Bridge, Easley Bridge and Nectar Bridge.
The abutments rest on the rock ledges of the gorge while an intermediate pier support is built of masonry and concrete. The timbers are hand-hewn oak, felled in the valley and raised to the bridge by rope.
Prudence Horton says of her grandfather’s efforts to obtain payment for the bridge: “The government people here didn’t have the money to pay him when Grandpa got the bridge finished, so he and another fellow set off on horseback for Birmingham to collect what was owed him. Grandpa was expecting to be paid in paper money, but when he got there, they paid him in silver. By the time they got back home with all that money, the horses’ hides had been rubbed raw from the weight of it.”
Horton’s Bridge, as with all other covered bridges, was roofed to keep supporting timbers dry—and therefore free of rot. Until Horton built his bridge, the hill dwellers could cross only at a single ford in Little Warrior River, and then only when the water was at a safe level. Horton’s bridge gave the mountain folk easy access to town and to the thriving businesses he operated alongside the bridge.