The King of Bridges

In Woodbury, GA there is an old covered bridge spanning Red Oak Creek. Built in 1840, by a freed slave, this bridge has a lot of history and is known as the longest covered bridge in the state.

Red Oak Creek Covered Bridge
At 391 total feet, the bridge has a 115 foot covered section which is said to be the longest unsupported span in Georgia

A very long timber-decked approach adds another 250 feet making this the longest wooden bridge in the State of Georgia. (The longest covered section bridge still belongs to the Watson Mill bridge.) This, in itself, is pretty incredible, but the story of the man who constructed the bridge is even more fascinating.2018-03-13-13-13-36-e1521325492357.jpg

Horace King is considered the most respected bridge builder of the South’s 19th century, producing dozens of bridges in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

horace

During his life, he was noted as an architect, engineer, bridge builder and politician serving as a Republican member of the Alabama House of Representatives.

King was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1807. He was taught to read and write at an early age and became a proficient carpenter and mechanic by his teenage years.

Kings master died in 1830, and he was *cringe* purchased again by John Godwin, a bridge contractor. Godwin was known for training slaves in the skills of building and apparently realized King’s intuitive genius as a builder and nurtured those skills. Even though King was technically Godwin’s “property,” in reality, King functioned more as Godwin’s junior partner. King planned the construction, and as the superintendent erected the bridges all over the south. In 1832 Godwin received a contract to construct a 560-foot bridge across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia to Girard (now Phenix City), Alabama. He moved to Girard and took Mr. King with him. Together they built each of them a home and then set out building nearly every home in Girard as well as bridges and warehouses. In the mid-1830’s Mr. Godwin sent Mr. King to study at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the United States to admit African-American students. By 1840, Mr. King was publicly acknowledged as being a “co-builder” along with Godwin. The hallmark of the men’s design is lattice truss using the criss-cross planks to create latticework, that was taught to him by Ithiel Town.

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Ithiel Town Lattice Truss design

By 1843 King was building his own bridges all over the south. Despite enslavement, John Godwin allowed King and his other slaves a great degree of freedom. King and others were allowed to keep income from work and were allowed to work without the white man’s supervision. During the mid-1800’s a law in Alabama required newly emancipated slaves to leave the state at once and releasing someone wasn’t quite as simple as “hey, you are free to go” or giving the slave a piece of clothing like in the Harry Potter novels.  Freedom had to be petitioned and granted by the General Assembly. This kept white men from buying blacks and then setting them free. But it didn’t keep white men from buying blacks and teaching them skills. Therefore Mr. Godwin’s slaves stayed enslaved, it wasn’t easy to convince an assembly of white men to allow blacks to simply go free. In the mid-1840’s Godwin had suffered a series of financial setbacks. The fear was that Horace would be taken from Godwin and sold to settle debts. Therefore, in 1846, Godwin petition the Alabama General Assembly for King’s release from slavery, even requesting the Alabama legislature exempt King from the law requiring him to leave the state of Alabama. Because of his notoriety, at the age of 39, King was given his freedom, and he was allowed to remain in the state. In 1852, King used his freedom to purchase land near his former master, and the relationship between the two men remained the same. When Godwin died in 1859, King had a monument erected over his grave. King publicly stated his affection for his former master on a large Masonic monument that he purchased for $600 and erected on Godwin’s grave. The inscription reads:

John Godwin Born Oct. 17, 1798. Died Feb. 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.

King remained close to the Godwin family, helping Godwin’s son run the failing family business. In addition, King quietly provided for his former master’s family.

King constructed a number of bridges leading up to the war and during the war was conscripted to build for the Rebellion. Of course, he didn’t agree with the succession threat the Confederate posed, but he didn’t have much choice, but to help them. Union troops destroyed all of King’s bridges during the Civil War and only a handful of those that were rebuilt remain today.

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King was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1868. I mean seriously Y’all, think about that. A former slave was elected to office in 1868. If that happened, then why do we still have issues today?!  He served two terms but was unhappy. His passion was building bridges and that is what he longed to do. In 1869 his firm King Brothers Bridge Company rebuilt the City Mill in Columbus, the tin-covered factory building still stands today.

The King family moved to LaGrange, GA in the 1870’s. He attempted to establish a colony of freedmen in Georgia. and was part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency established to help safeguard blacks from any form of re-enslavement. Education for blacks had long been a concern of King and his eldest son, who believed in the old axiom, “Ignorance breeds poverty.” Horace King hoped to establish a “small colony”, where former slaves could study. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition.

When he died, his funeral procession went around what is now Lafayette Square, the center of LaGrange. Business stopped, and blacks and whites alike came out to pay their respects. Dr. William H. Green memorialized Horace King stating: “..his life was an astonishing symbolic bridge– a bridge not only between states but between men. Like one of his stately Town lattice bridges, Horace King’s life soars above the murky waters of historical limitations, of human bondage and racial prejudice. He did not change the currents of social history, but he did transcend them…”

I think we all should strive to be a bridge that changes social history in honor of Mr. King.

Keep the Lust for Wandering, Y’all!

Fran, Emily, and Mama (Ruth)

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