MARION MEMORIAL BRIDGE
• 1929: Year built
• 1966: Reconstructed (for change in water level with completion of Nickajack Dam)
• $488,848: Project cost
• 20 feet: Lane width (no shoulders)
• 1,870 feet: Bridge length
• 2,250: Average daily traffic 2009
• 57 feet: Vertical navigation clearance
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation and historicbridges.org
• March 23, 2011: Construction start
• Aug. 31, 2013: Projected completion date
• $21.6 million: Project cost
• 50 feet: Lane and shoulder width
• 1,893 feet: Bridge length
• 60 feet: Vertical navigation clearance
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation and Britton Bridge LLC
HALETOWN, Tenn. — When it comes to the old U.S. Highway 41 bridge in Marion County, everybody at Anchor Inn Bait & Tackle says the same thing.
They’ll miss the old bridge and even wish someone could save it for pedestrians, but they all agree it’s too narrow.
Linda Castle crosses the 82-year-old truss-style bridge numerous times every day as the owner of Anchor Inn Bait & Tackle, which sits at the eastern end of the structure.
“I have a [Chevrolet] Tahoe, and the other day I met a truck pulling a boat and had to stop,” Castle said.
Her store stands beside the boat ramp that leads out into the Tennessee River under the bridge and is swamped with boaters and anglers throughout the season. Castle said many people have stopped by to ask about the future of the bridge and the bait shop.
Castle, 43, said she’d conjured a vision of building a restaurant with a glass floor on the deck of the old bridge so she could ferry her customers along the span to her restaurant in golf carts.
“If I had the money to do it,” she said, leaning back against the store counter.
The project to build a new, wider bridge — started in March — will have no impact on the store, but history’s clock is ticking as crews continue construction of a replacement for the old Marion Memorial Bridge on U.S. Highway 41. When traffic moves to the new bridge, the old bridge will be demolished.
“A lot of people’s going to miss that bridge,” Castle said. “I’ll still miss it, but I’m glad we’re getting a new bridge.”
Bridge fan Nathan Holth, author and webmaster of historicbridges.org, said the bridge is Tennessee’s largest Parker truss-style bridge. The two center segments are examples of Charles H. Parker’s design for a more complicated but lighter structure without compromising strength, according to online bridge design sources.
The number of truss bridges in the state has dwindled from 81 in 2007 to 67 this year, Holth said.
Efforts to preserve the old Marion bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, were forestalled by the downturn in the economy, state officials said.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, offered it to “interested historical societies or municipalities for possible relocation and preservation, but there were no takers,” TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said.
“To take ownership of the bridge would be extremely expensive, and no entity has agreed to accept liability and maintenance for it or expressed interest in doing so,” she said. “Therefore, the current plan is to demolish it as part of the project.”
In 2000, TDOT studied what it would take to preserve the bridge — initially built as a toll bridge — as a pedestrian walkway, she said. Cleaning and replacing steel parts of the structure, installing pedestrian-friendly handrails and fencing and replacing the bridge deck would run about $1.6 million for a timber deck and $1.9 million for concrete, she said.
In 2011 dollars, the same work would cost $3 million to $3.5 million, Flynn said. Unofficial annual maintenance estimates far exceed $125,000 for a pedestrian bridge, she said, and when the bridge inevitably grows too old for renovation, its demolition would cost $800,000 in 2011 dollars.
A BRIDGE TOO NARROW
Marion County Mayor John Graham said the new bridge answers traffic worries and safety issues surrounding the aging steel structure, though he regrets there’s no financially feasible way to keep it as a pedestrian walkway.
“It’s not economically feasible for a county our size to be able to maintain a structure like that,” Graham said.
Some people showed interest in preserving the bridge early on, but no one was able to commit, he said.
“I’m just pleased that we’re getting a new structure that’s going to be safer,” he said.
Rust problems forced the closure of the bridge last October so workers could fixed some of the corroded steel, officials said.
The 20-foot wide, two-lane track across the river on the old bridge is too narrow for wider vehicles to pass comfortably and has claimed countless exterior rearview mirrors over the years, even his, said Graham, who was with the county highway department for 16 years. Vehicle mirrors often strike oncoming vehicles or the bridge’s steel structure.
“When I drove a truck for the Marion County Highway Department, how many mirrors did I break crossing that bridge?” he mused. “I’d say a dozen.”
That’s why wide loads must stop oncoming traffic while they cross, he said.
Graham said state and local officials long have feared that if anything ever happened to force the closure of the Interstate 24 bridge, which runs parallel to U.S. 41 about a mile downstream, the old bridge couldn’t handle the detoured traffic that would be rerouted across it. Other alternate routes across the Tennessee River are few and could take drivers dozens of miles off course, he said.
HISTORY LOST, SAFETY FOUND
Visiting drivers find the old bridge a challenge.
“It’s very narrow. It’s very, very narrow,” Clayton, Ga., angler Marty Franklin said as he waited to pay for his purchases at Anchor Inn Bait & Tackle.
“It’ll make you ... cringe when you cross it and meet a tractor-trailer — or a Volkswagen for that matter,” he laughed.
His fellow Clayton angler, Adam McCrackin, said Thursday was the pair’s second visit to Nickajack Lake and that they encountered the narrow bridge both times.
Tina Lane, who works at the store, said she’ll miss the bridge as a local landmark. Lane, 52, said most people know it as the “blue bridge” even though it’s been green for years. Her father used to talk about paying a 10-cent toll to cross the bridge in the early days.
Her husband, 52-year-old Roger Lane, said he’s been driving across the bridge daily for 33 years. The bridge is narrow and dangerous, but it’s still part of local history, he said.
“A lot of people are going to miss it, as far as it being the old bridge. As far as driving it, there ain’t nobody going to miss it,” he said.
And the bridge has had its tragedies.
There’s no shoulder on the old bridge, and store customer Jimmy Dean Miller said the mirror of a passing truck fatally clipped his nephew as he walked across several years ago.
But Miller said he’d still like to see the bridge preserved or even widened and kept in use for traffic.
As work for lane approaches to the new bridge continues, crews are getting ready to start the first concrete work, said project manager Joe Smith, with Mount Juliet, Tenn.-based Britton Bridge, the builder.
“We’re getting ready to get out in the water and get the first pier started,” Smith said Thursday.
The next work people will see are large structural steel frames placed in the water so concrete can be poured on the riverbed’s rock base, he said. Sheet steel will make the boxes waterproof so water can be pumped out of them and the rest of the pier can be cast.
There will be four large piers and three small piers to support the deck of the “steel-girder bridge,” he said.
Smith said the new bridge will look much like the I-24 spans and is scheduled for completion Aug. 31, 2013.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...