CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:24 p.m. on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, to correct the attribution of the vintage photo collection.
Built as a gateway from downtown Chattanooga to Red Bank and Signal Mountain, the Olgiati Bridge has been part of the bustling U.S. Highway 27 commuter corridor here for more than 60 years.
Shown here under construction across the Tennessee River, the steel deck girder bridge was dedicated in 1959 bearing the name of former Chattanooga Mayor Peter Rudolph "Rudy" Olgiati, a mid-century city leader who was a famous champion for public works projects.
It's a open joke in these parts that many Chattanoogans grew up mispronouncing the name of the span as the "Old Johnny Bridge." It is almost a rite of passage here for children (and some adults) to be corrected by someone in the know: "Not, Old Johnny . . . Ol-giati."
This photo is part of an online collection of vintage photos curated by local history buff Sam Hall and donated by Perry Mayo. To explore the photograph at full resolution, visit ChattanoogaHistory.com/rememberwhen.
For significant parts of the 21st century the Olgiati Bridge has been book-ended by ongoing — some would say interminable — widening of U.S. Highway 27, including adding lanes to the bridge itself. The cost of the Highway 27 improvements has been reported as $143 million, making it one of the most ambitious urban highway projects in Tennessee history.
When it opened in the late 1950s, the Chattanooga Daily Times noted the cost of the Olgiati Bridge was $7 million, which would be about $62 million in today's dollars. The Nov. 21, 1959, edition of the Chattanooga Daily Times heralded the official dedication of the bridge, which it called "a link in the city's chain of progress."
Launched by history enthusiast Sam Hall in 2014, ChattanoogaHistory.com is designed to preserve historical images in the highest resolution available. If you have photo old negatives, glass plate negatives, or original nondigital prints taken in the Chattanooga area, contact Sam Hall at email@example.com for information on how they may qualify to be digitized and preserved at no charge.
According to city of Chattanooga archives, Olgiati was mayor from 1951 to 1963. He died in 1989 at age 88.
Olgiati moved to Chattanooga from Grundy County, Tennessee, as a child and grew up in the Alton Park and St. Elmo neighborhoods. He had a bootstraps early adulthood, working his way up in a construction company from bricklayer to company superintendent.
The archives also note Olgiati was "appointed Department of Public Service Commissioner in 1946, and ran for the seat the following year and won. In 1951, Olgiati sought the Chattanooga mayor's seat and defeated incumbent Mayor Wasson."
During Olgiati's time as mayor, Chattanooga became the first major city in Tennessee to have a completed interstate highway system.
Olgiati ran for governer of Tennessee in 1962 but lost to incumbent Buford Ellington.
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