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Contributed photos
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Contributed photos

When he was just 10 years old, Calvin Sneed stopped eating to grieve the demolition of a metal truss bridge in Marshall County, Tenn., near property that would become Henry Horton State Park.

"There was something about that steel arch crossing the [Duck] river, that, to a 10-year-old, was just breathtaking," said Sneed, who often crossed the bridge to visit family.

More than a half century later, Sneed, 63, still has an emotional bond with old bridges that he said "has grown from a passion to an obsession."

He just published a coffee-table book of photographs featuring scores of old bridges, "Building Bridges From Our Past to the Future" (College Press, 112 pages, $35).

Sneed said he spends much of his free time racing to document

some of the old steel truss spans before they are torn down. In fact, quickly flipping through the pages of his book, he pointed out that nine bridges among those photographed already have been demolished.

A popular news anchor at Chattanooga's WTVC NewsChannel 9, Sneed has been on air here for 25 years, and his work in broadcasting spans almost 50 years.

Yet he said few television viewers probably know about his bridge photography, which goes beyond a mere hobby and borders on being his life's work.

To Sneed, bridges are like people. For example, he said they breathe (the engineering metaphor for expanding and contracting) to absorb vibration.

When he revisits an old bridge, Sneed said, he mentally greets the span as if it were a person: "Hello, old friend. How are you? You are looking good!"

"If a bridge has a name, it has a personality," Sneed insists.

Most of the photographs in his book were taken in Tennessee and neighboring states, he said. Sneed said his photo library includes about 1,400 photos spread across hundreds of bridges within a 300-mile radius of Chattanooga.

He contributes his photos to a website called Bridgehunters.com, which has become the unofficial digital archive for bridge photography enthusiasts across the United States.

Semi-retired from his television job, Sneed said he now has more time for his bridge photography, which can be grueling. He tells of matching wits with angry snakes and fighting off mosquitoes the size of fidget spinners to get the best possible photographs of his beloved bridges.

Sneed said he has never been confronted on his journeys, and he is careful to ask property owners for permission to photograph bridges near their homes. It helps, too, that he always wears a reflective vest.

"Everybody just thinks I'm a bridge inspector," he said, laughing.

One bridge, though, is no laughing matter. Sneed said he cannot bring himself to photograph one of Chattanooga's most famous (and infamous) bridges: the Walnut Street Bridge.

Converted to a pedestrian walkway as part of the city's riverfront revitalization in recent decades, the Walnut Street Bridge was the site of two separate lynchings of black men more than a century ago.

Sneed said he is deeply conflicted about the span.

"I feel like I have to [someday] capture the elegance of this bridge, but I cannot reconcile its past," he said. "It's not the bridge's fault. I will get there. I've prayed about it, [but] I haven't taken a single picture."

Sneed's book is available at Barnes & Noble book store at Hamilton Place mall. He will do a book signing session at the "I Love Books" store in Kingsport, Tenn., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Contact staff writer Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6645.

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