Construction on the Walnut Street Bridge commenced in 1889. The “county bridge,” as it was known at the time, opened in 1891 and was the first non-military bridge to appear in a post-Civil War Chattanooga. In order to build the bridge, the county raised money through the issuance of a $200,00 bond, which was coupled with a $25,000 contribution from newly established Hill City on the north side of the river (today’s North Shore).
To fully appreciate the story of the Walnut Street Bridge, a stroll back to Chattanooga, circa 1839, the year of its birth, is necessary. At that time, the only way to get from one side of the river to the other side was by ferry or by taking a swim. The ferry that shuttled the people of Chattanooga from the south side of the river to the north side and back again was named Ross’s Ferry because it docked at Ross’s Landing, a very popular and wildly successful trading post and the birthplace of Chattanooga. For some, getting a little wet in the Tennessee River was worth the risk. If an enslaved person successfully swam the river and made it to the north shore, he or she could hope for freedom. During those days, it was generally deemed too costly in time and money for an owner to cross the river to collect his “property.” Amazingly enough, quite a few people made it, and a tiny haphazard community was born on the north shore. After the Union gained control of Chattanooga in 1863, the tiny community’s population exploded. By the end of the Civil War, some 6,000 African-Americans were living in what had come to be known as Camp Contraband due to the Confiscation Act, which defined an escaped slave as contraband. Camp Contraband later became Hill City, the city that contributed funds for the construction of the “county bridge,” a.k.a. the Walnut Street Bridge.
Before there was a “county bridge” in Chattanooga, there was a military bridge. In order to move supplies more efficiently, one of the first things the Union Army did after gaining control of the city was to build a bridge across the Tennessee River, connecting downtown with the north shore. Under order of Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster general of the Union Army, the Meigs Military Bridge was built in 1864. It spanned the river just the tiniest bit south of where the Market Street Bridge is now. Records show the north end of the Meigs Military Bridge started roughly where Renaissance Park is today. In fact, there is an historical maker located along the trail leading to the water from the park. Construction of the massive wooden bridge came at a cost to the city’s trees, as they were all but decimated by the time the project was completed. Stone from the abandoned Bluff View furnace located on the side of the cliff on which Hunter Museum now stands was used in the construction of the bridge’s pillars.
It was a short life, however, for the Meigs Military Bridge. The bridge was only 3 years old when the temperamental Tennessee River breeched its river banks by 55 feet, whisking away the bridge and flooding the city all the way to Ninth Street. The flood of 1867 is considered to be the largest in Chattanooga history, and it would be 22 years before the city made plans to give the citizens another bridge, a bridge now known by the name Walnut Street.
Designed by Edwin Thacher, renowned engineer, the Walnut Street Bridge is a pin-connected Pennsylvania through-truss design. Constructed of wrought iron and steel, the bridge spans 2, 376 feet. Due to concern over its structural integrity and ultimately, the safety of its citizens, the city closed the bridge to vehicular traffic in 1978. Slated for demolition in the late 1980’s, a lack of funding in the city’s budget gave citizens interested in saving the bridge just enough time to start a fundraising campaign to keep the bridge alive. And, boy, did those efforts ever pay off … with a most wonderful walking bridge and linear park. At just shy of half a mile, the bridge was touted as the world’s longest pedestrian bridge when it “re-opened” for public use in 1993. Several pedestrian-specific bridges have since been constructed throughout the world, thus knocking the Walnut Street Bridge out of contention as the longest pedestrian bridge built, as it was originally designed for vehicular traffic (including horse and carriage, street cars and automobiles). Now, Gatlinburg’s Skybridge, a suspension type pedestrian bridge measuring 680 feet, claims the title as longest pedestrian bridge in the United States, and Portugal’s suspension type walking bridge at 1,696 feet claims the world title. Despite losing the title of the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, the Walnut Street Bridge still has a claim to fame: It is the oldest surviving truss bridge in the South.
For many, the outdoors has always beckoned. For others, not so much. But during the days of this persisting pandemic, lots of people have found solace in nature. In Chattanooga there are ample opportunities to get out and about, whether it be against an urban backdrop or completely immersed in nature. For an urban walking adventure, the Walnut Street Bridge is an excellent place to start. Make sure to find the “portal to the past” to fully appreciate all that Chattanooga was and how modernization has since changed the landscape.
Okay, ready for that adventure? Let’s go! Start by taking note of the buildings located at the bridge entrance closer to downtown. Before there were eye-catching condos and a boutique hotel, this site was the location of the first “framed” house in Chattanooga, known as the Latner House. Built by TJ Latner, a successful merchant in town, it boasted an incredible view as it sat perched on one of the highest points along the river in the city. Deemed one of the loveliest homes in all of the city, it was apparently coveted by Gen. Grant; shortly after arriving in Chattanooga in 1863, he promptly commandeered it as one of his many headquarters. Legend claims it was his favorite.
Shuffle on over to the right side of the bridge and find the old Bluff View furnace site … yes, there is enough of it left to appreciate where it once stood in all its boldness. Admire some of the bridge restoration donors’ nameplates and silently thank them. Stop midway across the bridge for a 360-degree view of the city and beyond to all of its elevated terrain. Mosey all the way over to the other side and, upon exiting the bridge, look up to the left at the top of the red brick building and notice the “Hill City” Lodge sign. Turn left and enter Coolidge Park, noticing the tremendous amount of trees and vegetation as you pass the pavilion, as you round toward the Market Street Bridge. Stop there and appreciate the Walnut Street Bridge: Note how it looks like several camel backs. The Pennsylvania through-truss bridge is very similar to the camel-back truss bridge. Continue under the Market Street overpass to Renaissance Park and find the Meigs Military Bridge marker. Heck, you should even take the time to find a piece of cardboard for a fun slide ride down the hill while there!
Return via Market Street to appreciate the bridge from afar. It really is magnificent. Once the stroll is complete, make sure to eat at one of many eateries in downtown or back on the North Shore. Goodness knows, this adventure undoubtedly worked up an appetite!
by JD Harper
JD Harper is a local author. “GLINT,” her debut novel, is set in Chattanooga amid its rich Civil War history and rock climbing culture. Visit jd-harper.com.