Sunday, August 14, 2016

Louisville & Nashville Railroad Bridge

 Across the Cumberland River at Nashville

Railroad Bridge from 1st Avenue North, google view, 2016

The subject came up, in a facebook group, of bridges across the Cumberland River, at Nashville.  A good bit of information can be easily found on all of the auto and pedestrian bridges across the river.  I have devoted a couple of blog posts to those bridges in the past.  This post is a work in progress and will be updated if more documentation is found.

Curiosity about the railroad bridge at Nashville, set off on a search for information.  A quick google search brought up some very conflicting information, some from websites devoted to railroading and/or bridge history.  No easy answers on this one, so I decide to start at the beginning.

Stories of the first railroad bridge, built 1857-1859, can be found in multiple sources. Most every history book devoted to Nashville, makes mention of it.  Newspaper articles show that the bridge, built by the Louisville and Nashville railroad company,  was started in 1857, and was nearly completed in 1858. 

Daily Nashville Patriot, Aug. 10, 1859

For unexplained reasons work was halted, but picked up again in late 1859.  The bridge was opened for use at the end of October, 1859.  Major Wilbur Foster superintended the building of the bridge.

Nashville Union and American, Oct. 29, 1859
In the April 7, 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly, an engraving of the railroad bridge at Nashville was published.  The span was very impressive, with an extra pier out from the center, to accommodate the draw span, when it opened.  Two years later, Nashville was taken by Union Troops and occupied by the Federal Army for the remainder of the Civil War.  As the Confederates soldiers made a hasty retreat from Nashville, in February of 1862, they set fire to the pedestrian bridge and the railroad bridge. 

The first railroad bridge at Nashville, Harper's Weekly, 1860, The Lincoln Foundation Collection.

It was reported that the railroad bridge was not badly damaged. The Union Army quickly rebuilt the wooden railroad bridge.  There are several images of the bridge after it was repaired.  An engraving appeared in Harper's Weekly of the bridge.  It was pleasing to the eye, a covered bridge in part a center draw.

Harper's Weekly, 1864, Library of Congress

It looks as if the piers and the end sections are original.  The middle section of the bridge is different.  Both bridges were constructed so that the middle section could swing around sideways, to allow boats to pass.  In this photograph from 1864, the bridge has been fortified by the Union Army, to protect from an advancement by Confederate troops.

The second Railroad Bridge at Nashville, 1864, Library of Congress

The war time bridge served Nashville until 1867.  The Louisville & Nashville railroad began construction on a new bridge in early 1867. The bridge was erected on the same piers as the old bridge.  The wood was removed and replaced with the Fink iron truss.  Albert Fink, the inventor of the truss, was the General Superintendent of the Louisville & Nashville railroad and he oversaw the construction of the bridge.

Nashville Union and American, June, 21, 1867

 The bridge was completed in November, 1867. News accounts report that the bridge provided transport for more than train cars.  It apparently had been the habit of the residents of North Edgefield to use the bridge, to cross on foot, from one side of the river to the other.  A petition was presented to the railroad, asking that this practice be allowed to continue, with the opening of the new bridge.

The third railroad bridge at Nashville, Nashville Union and American, Nov. 8, 1867

After thirty years of service it was decided that a new bridge was needed to carry the increasing weight load.  Early in 1897, a notice appeared in a trade magazine. "It is understood that the Louisville & Nashville will soon begin the work of rebuilding the bridge over the Cumberland river at Nashville, Tenn., replacing the present structure with a steel truss bridge of two fixed spans and one draw span."  This would be the fourth railway bridge to cross the Cumberland at Nashville.

The Railway Age, volume 24, 1897

 A lengthy article appeared in the Nashville American, in late 1897 about the new bridge, outlining the reasons a new bridge was necessary.  The first was to increase the weight load that the structure could carry.  The weight of engines had greatly increased since the bridge was built and some cars were in excess of three times the weight of an average car in 1867. The second reason was to place a double track on the bridge.  Though only one train could be on the bridge at one time, there would be four rails, overlapping, to make bridge traffic move through more quickly and easily.

Nashville American, Nov. 14, 1897

The piers were reinforced to bear the weight of the new of the new steel structure. Granite used in the piers was taken from the Salem-Bedford quarries.  The Pennsylvania Steel Company was awarded the contract for building and placing the new steel superstructure.  The bridge was in use during the rebuilding.  J. L. Armstrong was the superintendent of the bridge project. The cost was about $60,000 and after the upgrades the bridge was appraised at around $300,000 dollars.

I found many mentions in print, of the bridge after 1897, but no evidence of another bridge ever being constructed.  In 1899, there was a warehouse fire near the East Nashville of the bridge.  The warehouse and train cars nearby were loaded with nitrate and there were many explosions, felt as far away as Gallatin.  The bridge caught fire and had to be repaired.

Nashville American, Nov. 26. 1899

I found sad stories.  The river was accessible near the bridge, as there had once been a wharf there.  It was a popular area for swimming and there drownings in the area of the bridge.

I found stories that could have been tragic but ended up being funny.  Once, in 1905, the draw was opened to allow a steam boat to pass.   The wind was up, and a sudden gust caught the draw span and spun it completely around, damaging the smokestack on the boat. The three men in the control tower jumped from the draw span onto the bridge as they went around. The headlines likened the draw span to a merry-go-round.

Nashville American, March 30, 1905

The Tennessean, Nov. 23, 1907

In a 1909 image of the Woodland Street bridge the railroad bridge can be seen in the background.

Tennessean, July 4, 1909

I found a story of remarkable loyalty, not uncommon among that generation of men.  Mr. Madison White, started working for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad on June 8, 1857, at the beginning of the construction of the railway bridge at Nashville.  In 1907, Mr. White was awarded a gold pin, in honor of 50 years of service to the railroad. When the news article was published in 1910, Mr. White, still working, had been with the railroad for 53 years.  Only one man had longer service and that was Major Geddes, assistant general manager of the L & N railroad.

Nashville Globe, Sept 9, 1910

 In 1921 the draw span was closed for a period of time, so that repairs could be made on the bridge.

The Tennessean, June 28, 1921

There were stories, and photos, of flood waters reaching high up on the piers, which were marked as a gauge, to measure the river's height.

Tennessean, Jan. 2, 1945

Is the current bridge, the same bridge that was built in 1897?  If you follow the timeline of the bridge, through 1897, the piers are the same as the ones built in 1859 for the first bridge, with some reinforcement and additional stone.  Each time a new bridge was built, it was stated that the old piers were used.  A new bridge was in erected in 1867 on those piers.  In 1897, the bridge was not entirely new, because trains passed over the structure during the rebuilding.  The bridge was widened to accommodate 4 rails and the wood was replaced. The1867 steel truss was removed and a new steel superstructure was built and placed on the bridge.  The cost of rebuilding was about 60,000 dollars and increased the value of the bridge to an estimated 300,000 dollars.

There are a couple of websites that contain information that the latest bridge was built in 1916.  I could find nothing in the newspapers, that indicated a bridge was built at Nashville over the Cumberland in 1916.  There is a photo of a stamped plate on the bridge, that says Fort Pitt Bridge Works, 1916.  Yet news stories from 1916 and 1919 refer to the bridge as old. Is the Fort Pitt steel plate, on this bridge? Is there any sort of documentation of a bridge in 1916 or anytime after the 1897 bridge? I hope someone will share some documentation with me.

 UPDATE, Aug. 18, 2016 - After additional research, I can find no source that the bridge was built in 1916. The date seems to be based on the photo of a plaque posted by Calvin Sneed. But that plaque is on a different bridge, adjacent to this one. The plaque is on the CSX, 1st Ave. North Overpass. The last documented bridge was built in 1897 and 1898. This image, from the Tennessean, Feb. 11, 1898, states that work on the bridge began on Oct. 6, 1897. The official completion date was  February 10, 1898.

Tennessean, Feb. 11, 1898

The references in the article make it clear that this is the bridge across the Cumberland from East Nashville to downtown Nashville. The blog contains further documentation on the bridge.

 If what has been discovered is correct, the CSX bridge that crosses the Cumberland river at Nashville is almost 120 years old.  And the piers, with new masonry added, may be much older, nearly 160 years old.  They don't build them like that anymore!

These two news articles from 1916 and 1919, inform readers that the bridge is an old one.
Tennessean, June 16, 1916

Tennessean, Feb. 9. 1919

UPDATE Aug. 18, 2016 - I found three articles that show that the current bridge was under construction, in 1931.  I believe the bridge was finished sometime in 1932, but have not yet discovered a date. Watch for updates.

The Tennessean, May 5, 1931

The Tennessean, July 31, 1931

The Tennessean, Oct. 9, 1931

CSX Railroad Bridge over the Cumberland at Nashville, 2010, MNA

Click for VIDEO, showing closing of draw span, railroad bridge over the Cumberland. Jeremy Fountain.


  1. The 1897 bridge is shown in the following book. Do note how it looks nothing like the current bridge:

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The image your referenced, in the Giers book, by Hoobler, is the 1867 bridge, which had a Fink Iron Truss.
    This link shows a photo which appeared in a 1909 newspaper of the 1897 bridge. The Woodland Street Bridge is in the foreground and the Railroad bridge in the background. The 1909 bridge looks like the current bride, and not like the one in the Giers book.

  3. My link does not work. Scan through the article and find the image labeled July 4, 1909. You will see the 1897 bridge in the background north of the Woodland Street Bridge. The images of a bridge in Hoobler's book are not dated. However the images used on preceding and succeeding pages are from the 1880's.

  4. If you will go to page 25 in the book you referenced you will find this comment by Hoobler, "In 1884 Otto Giers began a personal photographic project. He set out to document his hometown, and he did so in several hundred views. All of the subsequent views were made by him in 1884-85". The photo you referenced on page 31, is among the photos from 1884-1885. As I stated before, it is the 1867 bridge with the Fink Iron Truss.

  5. Your website appeared in Google search results for a recent change to this bridge. I cross the Cumberland every weekday on my way to work on the Main Street bridge and noticed the pier that supports the draw span in the middle of the river on one side is completely gone! In its place is a buoy, likely marking where the pier was sunk into the riverbed. The corresponding pier on the other side of the bridge still stands. I cannot find in searching whether this was damaged by a ship and demolished to be rebuilt or whether this was damage from the 2010 flood that now requires rebuilding the pier or some other reason. Trains still pass over the bridge and ships still go under it, except those too tall to pass, especially as high as the Cumberland has been the last few weeks. Perhaps your sources can provide you with an update on the status of the bridge.

    1. My husband and I noticed the bouy recently while crossing the Memorial Bridge and wondered what it could be. It did not occur to me that the bridge pier was gone. I don't know what it going on, and did not find anything with an online search. I looked through the press released on the CSX website but did not see anything about this bridge.

  6. The upper support pier was destroyed by the M/V Steve Plummer.

  7. Does anyone know when the upstream Louisville & Nashville bridge at Shelby Park was built? Are there any facts that verify when this one was built? I have not seen a plate on this bridge, but there probably is one.

    1. The bridge was built in 1912/1913. Foster-Creighton-Gould were the general contractors. An article in the Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American published on Oct. 27, 1912 gave details of the progress on the bridge. The bridge was constructed for the Lewisburg and Northern branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Metro Nashville Archives at the public library on Church Street, houses the Creighton collection, which contains photos of the bridge under construction in 1912.

  8. The H. Bolla mentioned in the 1867 article is my Great-Great-Granduncle, William Henry Bolla. His 1899 Louisville, KY obituary says he was Superintendent of Bridges and Buildings for the L and N Railroad for 42 years. My Great-Great-Grandfather James M. Gardner worked with him. Family tradition says that during the Civil War, James was captured by both sides from time to time but always let go when they found out that he could keep the trains running.

    Beth Wilson


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