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Drum Major Kameron Reed, 8, leads the Howard High School Marching Band in the Walnut Street Bridge 20th anniversary parade Sunday.
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Adriene Petmecky and her daughters Willa, 3, and Matilda, 2, who live on the North Shore, watch a group with the Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System ride by during the Walnut Street Bridge parade.

Under unexpectedly blue skies, members of the Howard High School Band lined up in their signature crimson and gold uniforms, ready to march across the Walnut Street Bridge on Sunday.

Chattanooga groups and residents turned out in force to walk in the parade celebrating the 20th anniversary of the bridge's reopening as a linear park. The bridge itself hummed along to the celebration of its rebirth as the beams and planks vibrated from the drums' deep percussion.

"It's all about beautifying the city and bringing people together," said Nina Jones Chapin, who helped orchestrate the many groups taking part in the day's festivities, put on by the Parks Foundation.

Built in the 1890s, the bridge carried horse-drawn wagons and carriages before gasoline and diesel vehicles crowded out animal power. Chattanooga's government closed the bridge in 1978, deeming it unsafe for further vehicular use. But a number of Chattanoogans spoke up to save it from demolition and to restore it.

"This was a project that started many years ago when a group of citizens went to the city of Chattanooga and said, 'Please don't tear this down,'" said Becky Browder, a part of the original committee formed to save the bridge. "We all feel that this is one of the greatest renovations this city has ever done."

Parade participants included the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Choo Choo Train, which proudly chugged across the river behind Bike Chattanooga members. DOGood volunteers followed with their costumed doggy companions, some wearing tutus and others a variety of wacky headgear.

Karen Roach, director of DOGood, a volunteer citizen's group that educates people on the proper care of dogs, said the group worked for five years to open the bridge to the city's canine residents.

"It's open to families and their children, but dogs are family, too," she said, standing next to Bentley, a giant goldendoodle wearing a poncho and sombrero for Cinco de Mayo. "We love this bridge."

But this beloved icon of the city, which so many people worked hard to save, has a dark past.

The bridge's early days were an era of deep racial divide. City records document at least two black men being lynched from its span.

"This bridge, just like the city of Chattanooga, has a checkered past in terms of racial disparity," said City Councilman Chris Anderson, whose District 7 includes the bridge.

But Anderson said the structure now symbolizes citywide efforts to join together the different communities of Chattanooga.

"[It's] a symbol of the city," he said. "We're [bringing] two areas together, and that's what we're doing all over. We're bridging gaps."

Chattanoogans have reclaimed the bridge as a place for new and brighter memories. It is now a go-to spot for proposals, family outings and special events such as the annual Wine Over Water fundraiser benefiting the historic preservation group Cornerstones.

Bethyn Merrick-Nguyen, who moved here in December, said the bridge is her favorite feature of the city.

"I love it in the morning and in the afternoon and at night," she said.

Merrick-Nguyen remembers running down the bridge on New Year's Eve, just minutes before the clock struck midnight, to watch the fireworks over the river.

"We kept dashing from one side to the other to see the fireworks," she said, "and we broke open a bottle of champagne. It was a classic spot for a classic holiday."

Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkholder or 423-757-6592.