Clarkson Covered Bridge
Clarkson Covered Bridge, one of Cullman County's most well known attractions, is also one of the area's most historically rich sites. First built in 1904, the 270-foot lattice-truss bridge is now one of only 14 covered bridges remaining in Alabama. Once used regularly by farmers and travelers to cross Crooked Creek, the weatherworn bridge is now closed to traffic, the centerpiece of a park built in period fashion to showcase the bridge and its historical significance.
Unfortunately, not only history can be found amidst the aged timbers of Clarkson. Over the years, burrowing insects have eaten away at the wooden skeleton of the bridge, endangering the fragile infrastructure. Decades of vandalism have resulted in missing carriage bolts as well as damage to the planks that form the bridge itself. Weather, too, has had its way with the structure. Time has taken a heavy toll on Clarkson, and the treasured local landmark with the colorful past now faces a very bleak future indeed unless something can be done.
History of the Bridge
The history of the site began many years before the first plank was ever put into place. During the Civil War, Union Col. Abel Streight led a small band of men through Cullman County toward Rome, Georgia, in an ill-fated attempt to destroy the Western Atlantic Railroad that supplied Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's army in middle Tennessee. Pursued by the famous (not to mention infamous) Confederate Gen. Nathaniel B. Forrest, Streight engaged in a number of battles in Cullman County that culminated in the running skirmish now known as Streight's Raid. One of these battles, the Battle of Hog Mountain, took place on April 30, 1863, and was fought in the vicinity of the site where Clarkson Bridge now stands. Many Civil War artifacts have been recovered along the banks of Crooked Creek, the narrow waterway spanned by Clarkson Bridge.
The bridge itself was constructed in 1904 by master bridge builders John Goodwin and Horace King. Goodwin and King, an Alabama-born ex-slave, erected the bridge for the cost of $1,500 on property once owned by J.W. Legg. Originally called Legg Bridge after the original landowner, the structure of the 270-foot bridge was quite unique. Goodwin and King used a design that had been developed by Ithiel Town of Connecticut and patented in 1820. Called the Town Lattice Truss, the bridge building system employed an elaborate framework of lumber that formed a cross pattern similar to that of a garden trellis. The wooden crosses were connected at each intersection by thick double pegs and were connected to large horizontal chords at both the top and bottom of the bridge. This innovative design allowed the bridge to be virtually self-supporting and capable of withstanding tremendous loads without sagging. King, who spent 20 years working with Goodwin and 30-plus years working for himself, was responsible for the construction of more than 125 such bridges in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Clarkson Bridge differs from many other such bridges in that iron carriage bolts were used to connect the lattice framework as opposed to the older design, which called for heavy oak pins.
In 1921, a huge storm snapped the bridge in half, one part remaining in place while the other floated downstream. Washed away by the rain-swollen torrents of Crooked Creek, the lost half of Clarkson Bridge was later found lodged in a narrow spot of the creek bed and was salvaged. The locals worked hard to save the scattered parts of the ruined bridge and were rewarded soon after when the county was able to hire a contractor to repair the bridge using mostly original materials. The cost of the project to repair the bridge, completed one year later, was $1,500.
On June 25, 1974, Clarkson Covered Bridge was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Shortly thereafter, in 1975, the Cullman County Commission restored the site with the help of concerned citizens as part of the American Bicentennial Project, embellishing the grounds with hiking trails, a picnic area, and two period structures built to accent the historical nature of the bridge: a dogtrot log cabin and a working grist mill. Located just off U.S. Highway 278 in Bethel, Clarkson Bridge is the site of the Old Fashioned Days event, an annual fundraiser for the park system, as well as numerous weddings, car shows and various other activities.
The Alabama Historical Society has awarded the county a grant of $45,000 toward the restoration of the bridge, but the county itself is responsible for at least $22,500 in matching funds. Donations are, of course, acceptable, but the donation of time and/or materials is also needed. Professionals skilled in computer drafting, surveying, carpentry, bridge construction, painting, and heavy equipment operation are needed. The existing structure will need to be modeled with the aid of computer draftsmen. It will need to be shored and braced with structural steel during the construction. Backhoes, pressure painters, and even a sawmill will be needed during the process. The project itself -- which will include planning, obtaining and preparing the raw materials, administration of the grant monies and the actual construction -- is projected to last two years. If you or someone you know would like to donate time, materials or labor to the project, you can contact the Cullman County Park and Recreation Office at (256) 734-3369.
The Gristmill at Clarkson Bridge