Old Town stands today, as proudly as ever, showing few scars… It is a place of legend and a place of romance, a union of the traditions of yesterday and the promises of tomorrow… It is hoped that Old Town will stand for the use and happiness of generations yet unborn… Henry and Virginia Goodpasture, 1950.
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The Old Town Bridge
The path leading from what became Nashville, Tennessee to what became Natchez, Mississippi is indeed an ancient one measured by the standards of US history. While many different specific versions of this transportation route existed, the general route itself stretches back to include commerce and contact between prehistoric Native Americans since at least the Middle Woodland era (ca. 2000 years ago) and probably several thousands of years earlier.
The version of the "Old Natchez Trace" that led to construction of the amazing surviving bridge at Old Town was created during one of the earliest federal road-building projects in Tennessee (and indeed the United States). The largely unimproved trail linking these critical regions proved inadequate for reliable mail delivery and other travel, so the United States Army developed a new version of this ancient road called the Natchez Trace Road or Government Road in 1801-1803. In 1801, federal soldiers built the Old Town Bridge as part of this massive hundreds-of-miles-long project -- including a section of road through Chickasaw territory approved in 1802.
The bridge at Old Town spanned what later became known as Brown's Creek next to its confluence with the Big Harpeth River and consisted of massive masonry abutments with a short pole bridge suspended between. Pole bridges were the most common type of early frontier bridge -- consisting merely of trees or logs extending from one abutment to another with a deck of saplings or planks laid across them. Great care was taken in constructing the abutments for this bridge -- with dressed limestone blocks laid in a rectangular fashion about 15 feet in height. Until the 1820s when steam driven boats began to be available, Tennessee farmers and merchants who shipped their products by flatboat down the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers often rode the almost 500 miles home on horseback -- unable to return by boat against the inexorable flow of the Mississippi. By about 1830, other means and routes of long-distance transport eclipsed the Trace, although it continued to serve as an important vanue for local transportation along much of its length.
While the bridge deck itself was completely replaced many times, the abutments have survived in place -- only being restacked to restore damage from floods. The bridge served as the primary crossing for over a century, when the "new bridge" was built to accomodate increasing automobile traffic. According to Louise Davis ("The Indians Called it Old Town," 28 Oct 1956, Tennessean), the "new" bridge collapsed in July 1955 under the weight of a huge oil truck, and while it is being rebuilt the 155-year-old stone structure bears the burden of traffic again."
Most recently, a preservation easement was donated to the Tennessee Preservation Trust to help ensure the long-term protection of this important place. The north abutment was restored in about 2014 by the Dry Stone Conservancy, while the south abutment remains unrestored and provides a stark contrast demonstrating the ravages of time (and Browns Creek).
An amazing survival from over 200 years ago -- made possible by the care and concern of so many of the owners over that time.
Old Town Heritage Project l MTSU Box X112 l 1301 East Main Street l Murfreesboro TN 37132-0001 l firstname.lastname@example.org