Stone by stone, federal bridge contractors are beginning to take apart and put back together two historic bridges in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
The spans, Alexander's Bridge and Slough Bridge, are just feet apart. In addition to having a rich Civil War history, the rock wall linking them in an L curve is said to have been built at least in part by slaves.
"The stonework guys are there, and I guess it's going to be like working a jigsaw puzzle - taking it apart and putting it back together. But they've done this kind of stuff before," said Jim Szyjkowski, chief of resource management at the battlefield park.
Alexander's Bridge was closed to all but pedestrian and bicycle travel in early 2009 after it failed an inspection. Slough Bridge was closed to vehicles after it was damaged by flooding in late 2009.
The dilemma for national park officials then became one of safety versus historical significance in a park dedicated to preserving history.
Highway officials first wanted to replace the bridges with a new, straighter and longer one, Szyjkowski said.
"We didn't want that, so we asked them to look again," he said last year before a public hearing about the matter.
The original Alexander's Bridge was key during the Battle of Chickamauga.
In an opening skirmish on Sept. 18, 1863, Union Col. John T. Wilder's mounted infantry brigade defended the West Chickamauga Creek crossing against the approach of Confederate forces.
Wilder held off Confederate Brig. Gen. St. John Liddell's brigade division. In the process he thinned Confederate ranks by 105 men while significantly delaying the Confederate advance. After the Rebels pulled back and detoured to a creek crossing a mile downstream, Wilder ordered Alexander's Bridge destroyed.
In 1897, the bridge was replaced with a wooden, low-truss span built on the native stone abutments. In 1907, a steel superstructure replaced the wood but still stood on the native stone abutments.
That same year, the Slough Bridge was built over a wet-weather tributary. It was a reinforced concrete deck set on steel stringers, but again was supported by the native stone abutments.
Source: National Park Service
Last month, the National Park Service announced a $1.6 million contract that struck a balance: Repair the bridges with history in mind.
A bonus is that the steel span section of Alexander's Bridge - built 104 years ago to replace a wooden one - will be recycled in Walker County for eventual use in a regional greenway system.
All the bridge repair work is scheduled to be complete, and Alexander's Bridge Road should be reopened, before January, according to park officials.
Don Oliver, Walker County attorney, has been negotiating with the park service for more than a year to get the steel truss from Alexander's Bridge.
The county has undertaken such recycling projects before.
"Twenty years ago, maybe longer, when Walker County took down its last arch steel support bridge, the commission built a set of headwalls at the county maintenance facility and set that bridge there as a museum engineering piece for school groups to look at or whatever," Oliver said.
When Chattanooga wanted something to use as a walking bridge at Camp Jordan, the city didn't have anything in its inventory that was long enough.
"Our bridge was," Oliver said.
So Walker County donated the bridge from its museum, and it now serves as the South Chickamauga Greenway bridge between East Ridge's Camp Jordan and Chattanooga.
Last year, when military park officials put out a notice on Alexander's Bridge, Walker County officials could foresee needing it sooner or later on the region's ever-growing greenway system - "perhaps even in the West Chickamauga Creek greenway area," Oliver said.
"We already have a headwalls system here, so they're going to bring it here, and we'll use it sooner or later. In the meantime, it will be here for another museum piece," he said.
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6346.