Two bridges, both more than 100 years old and one an integral part of the country's Civil War history, may make history again if an unusual plan is accepted to rehabilitate them.
"We want the bridges put back (open) and made as nearly like they are as possible because they're beautiful," said Marlyna Locke, who lives just a few houses away from the bridges.
The two bridges, both on the property of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, are just feet apart and form an L curve to link the southern end of the park with the Burning Bush community.
Alexander's Bridge was closed a little more than a year ago after it failed an inspection. Slough Bridge was closed after it was damaged in late fall floods in North Georgia.
The dilemma for national park officials now is one of safety vs. historical significance in a park completely dedicated to preserving history.
"It's a tough balance," said Jim Szyjkowski, resource management chief at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. "Our main mission here is to preserve and protect the resources of this military park.
"In this case, that bridge (the L formed by both bridges) is a historic structure. The problem with that particular historic structure is it's used on a daily basis and it's consumable. It has reached the end of its lifespan."
Highway officials first wanted to replace the bridges with a new, straighter one, Mr. Szyjkowski said.
"We didn't want that, so we asked them to look again," he said.
Another park neighbor, Odette Baltimore, grew up on the farm bordering the West Chickamauga Creek that Alexander's Bridge spans. Now she lives in a newer house next door.
"There's a rock wall here that was built by slaves," she said. "That wall is more valuable than the bridge is."
The original Alexander's Bridge was wooden, and it was a key structure for troop movement and battle tactics during the Battle of Chickamauga.
In an opening skirmish on Sept. 18, 1863, Union Col. John T. Wilder's mounted infantry brigade defended the crossing against the approach of Confederate forces.
Armed with Spencer repeating rifles and four guns of the 18th Indiana Battery, Col. Wilder was able to hold off a brigade of Confederate Brig. Gen. St. John Liddell's division.
The Confederates suffered 105 casualties against Col. Wilder's superior firepower before moving downstream a mile to Lambert's Ford to cross the creek considerably behind schedule. Before moving to another location, Col. Wilder ordered the bridge destroyed.
In 1897, the original bridge was replaced with a wooden, low-truss bridge built on "native stone abutments." In 1907, the wooden, low-truss bridge was replaced with a steel superstructure, still using the existing native stone abutments.
During that same year, the Slough Bridge was built over a wet-weather tributary that carries overflow during high water events. It was a reinforced concrete deck set on steel stringers, again supported by native stone abutments.
Finding middle ground
Mr. Szyjkowski said that when both Georgia and federal highway officials deemed the bridges no longer safe, it forced the park's hand.
The park's first preference for the bridges was to repair them as they are, he said, "but federal codes won't allow it."
"So this is where we come into this balancing act," he said.
* Permanently close Alexander's Bridge to all vehicle traffic and build turn-arounds
* Replace both bridges with new ones
* Build new abutments (constructed behind the existing abutments and hidden from view) on both bridges and replace the superstructure of Alexander's Bridge with a similar-looking steel truss
Source: National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration
COMMENT ON THE WORK
* An electronic version of the National Park Service's and Federal Highway Administration's environmental assessment is available on the Chattanooga Times Free Press website or at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=365&projectId=19227&documentID=33081
* You can also comment by midnight on May 5 online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?parkID=365&projectID=19227&documentId=33081
* Print copies of the assessment are available at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center, at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library downtown and at the public libraries in Rossville, Chickamauga, Walker County and Catoosa County.
* Comments by letter must be postmarked by May 5.
Note: The environmental assessment states the comment deadline is April 30, but federal highway officials say the comment deadline is May 5.
Source: National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration
Discussions with federal highway and national park officials, who will have to fund the work, have led to three alternatives now up for public review:
* Close Alexander's Bridge permanently to vehicular traffic and leave it open only to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
"That's not acceptable to the folks who live on the other side," Mr. Szyjkowski said.
* Replace both bridges with new ones.
"We didn't want that," he said. "So we said what else can we do?"
* A compromise. Build new abutments inside the old abutments and hide them. And build a new similar-looking truss superstructure to keep the historic flavor of both bridges -- and the community.
Mr. Szyjkowski said the bridges will remain one lane.
"In a small, historic community like this, that will help moderate traffic," he said.
The park's environmental assessment of the bridge work states that a 2004 highway survey determined the bridges had 370 vehicle crossings daily.
Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said highway officials will look carefully at all the alternatives.
"Each project is unique, so there is no easy way to compare the needs of this project to others," he said.
He declined to offer cost estimates, and there are no estimates offered in the assessment "to ensure all alternatives are explored and treated fairly."
As for the 103-year-old metal structure of Alexander's Bridge, Mr. Szyjkowski said park officials hope to donate it to one of the local greenways.
"It would be great for it to be part of the South Chickamauga Greenway project," he said.
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