published Friday, February 18th, 2011

Walnut Street Bridge 'connects communities'


by Cliff Hightower

IF YOU GO

The Parks Foundation and the city's Parks and Recreation Department will hold a ceremony at 11 a.m. today at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge to celebrate the bridge's 120th birthday and to kick off a fundraising campaign by selling plaques inscribed with the names of donors.

Plaques are $100 each and can be purchased online at www.walnutstreetbridge.org.

The Walnut Street Bridge, once the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, turns 120 years old today.

The bridge, which was slated for demolition in the 1980s, is now a premier linear park and serves as a daily respite for walkers, joggers and bicyclists. Several of those who helped save the bridge from destruction now say it has done more for Chattanooga than they ever dreamed it might.

"What we thought would happen has happened to a greater degree than we ever imagined," said Garnet Chapin, a local architect who led the movement in the 1980s to save the bridge.

Rusty Criminger, who worked with the original community group that helped save the bridge, said it acts as a connector, not just between the north and south shores of the Tennessee River, but for the community as a whole.

"The bridge is there as an enduring symbol," he said. "It connects communities."

The newly formed Parks Foundation, charged with raising money for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, will kick off its first campaign with a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. today on the south end of the bridge. Chapin and Criminger are both foundation board members.

Criminger said the group will seek donations for more plaques to be placed on the bridge. The old brass plaques naming original donors to the bridge's renovation were stolen numerous times because of their scrap value.

The new plaques will be made of zinc, Criminger said.

"There's no real salvage value in an eighth of an inch of zinc," he said.

The new plaques will cost $100 and also will have donors' names on them. The goal is to match the 1,776 plaques sold in the first campaign, he said.

The money will be used to pay for replacements for the original plaques. Any money left over will be used for maintenance, he said.

The bridge was built in 1891 and motor traffic used it until 1978. It sat unused for 15 years as Chattanooga and state officials tried to figure out whether to scrap or save it.

Finally the community group raised $5 million to refurbish the structure as a walking bridge. The bridge reopened on May 1, 1993, and people have been walking across it ever since.

Tom Rudd, a Chattanooga resident since 1978, sat on the bridge Thursday, enjoying the sunshine.

"It would have been a waste to tear it down," he said.

David Smotherman, owner of Winder Binder Art Gallery and Book Store and also president of the North Shore Merchants' Collective, said there's no doubt the bridge changed the city.

It opened the North Shore for shops, restaurants and, later, modern housing. Coolidge Park opened. Homes started being revitalized in North Chattanooga.

Smotherman opened a shop a block from the bridge a year after it reopened. He later relocated to be right next to the bridge because he believes in it, he said.

"It's just such a jewel for this whole city," he said.

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