Story By: Will Nease.
Covered Bridge at the “Big” Red Oak Creek
Logs wider and taller than light posts line the wooden bridge comprised of hundreds of intersecting beams that crisscross more times than a lanyard-making club at summer camp. No nails. Just wooden pegs one-inch in diameter and 10 or 12 inches long pounded into each individual intersection more than 160 years ago. Not just a few pegs, but more than 2,500 pegs individually nailed into hundreds of intersecting wood slats.
The 100-foot runway leading into the covered section of the bridge looks like an old washed-up boardwalk from centuries ago. The actual covered area of the bridge is small enough to fit inside most home garages, yet still connects the two sides across the creek. The length of the bridge causes you to notice every creaking plank beneath, every gap in the side and every hole in the wall where the sun shines through.
The Red Oak Creek Bridge in Meriwether County just outside of Gay, Ga., still stands after thousands of travelers have crossed the creek. The full-functioning bridge carried Model T Fords of yesteryear to Ford Explorers of today across its rickety planks.
A Georgia Historical Society historic marker next to the bridge points out, “At 391 feet including the approaches, this structure is the oldest and longest covered bridge in Georgia.” Well off the beaten path, this historic bridge survived fires, floods and various attempts of destruction to still stand strong. Often referred to as “big” Red Oak Creek, the creek sometimes looks like a creek for toddlers to play in, but because the area is relatively flat, the creek rises up the banks during extremely rainy days. At one point in its life, the bridge took on water ten feet above the floorboards, where a plaque now sits to mark the feat.
The difficulty of getting to the bridge may be one of the reasons why the bridge continues to exist. Driving south on Interstate I-185, travelers first hit Gay and continue south. Right after arrival in Gay, turn left onto Flat Shoals Road. A few miles down the road is Covered Bridge Road, covered in red dirt, rocks and brush. After a bumpy mile or two, the covered bridge will come into sight. Gay is approximately 50 miles south of Atlanta and 30 miles east of LaGrange.
The amount of time, effort and design put into this bridge represent much more than thousands of wood pieces and workers who put them together for a purpose. Not only is this bridge standing over history of Native Americans forcefully pushed west, but also this bridge is the last standing, working bridge build by the former slave Horace King, master bridge builder.
Not Your Typical Slave
King is most noted for being a slave who earned his freedom and became the most famous covered bridge builder in the Southeast.
According to “Covered Bridges of Georgia,” one of the most influential bridge builders of the day was born on Sept. 8, 1807, in the Cheraw District of South Carolina. King was born to his mulatto father Edmund King and his mixed blood mother Susan. John Godwin, a contractor around East Alabama and West Georgia, purchased King and then went to Columbus to build the first bridge over the Chattahoochee.
“He evidently was a very good master to Horace,” said historian and author Thomas French, Jr. “In fact, [it was] like Horace was working for him… I think John Godwin must’ve been a real good guy.”
Because Godwin treated King more as a building partner, King received an education of observation through Godwin and his resources. Unlike many slaves, King worked for a loyal master who deemed his slaves trustworthy. Where reading and writing were discouraged skills for slaves to possess, King took advantage of every opportunity to learn, according to French.
“He’s (Godwin) the one who taught Horace just about everything he knows, up to a point,” said French. “Horace had the availability of John Godwin’s intellect; now I’m not saying he was a brilliant scholar, but he knew how to build houses, and evidently knew how to build them well.”
King reaped the benefits of Godwin’s knowledge and library. During one of Godwin’s earlier projects with King at a bridge near Wetumpka, Ala., Godwin received offers to purchase King for large sums of money much higher than the regular rate for a good slave. It was evident King was an architectural genius who knew how to get the job done.
“Horace was an observant person. He made observations, and they clicked in his mind that from his observations he could make determinations,” said French. Through intense observation, King transformed thoughts into actions for building bridges, especially when it came to getting down to bedrock and reading river currents. If anyone needed information on a river, King knew best.
“Horace King had a mind that was constantly working to the betterment of his character as well of his manner of doing things, that’s the way I see Horace King,” exclaimed French.
The unusual relationship between King and his master provided King with ample opportunity to make a name for himself. The relationship between Godwin and King is represented by the words posted on Godwin’s memorial purchased by King: “This stone was placed here by Horace King in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his friend and former master.”
King’s “Gateway to the West”
Along with numerous houses and buildings, King built “at least 125 bridges” according to Troup County Archives historian Clark Johnson, but one of the most important bridges is the first bridge build in West Point.
“The gateway to the west,” said French in describing the importance of the West Point bridge crossing the Chattahoochee. Prior to construction, travelers either forged the river or paid for a ferry, but King’s bridge made an enormous impact for the travelers headed west.
This location is also where King met and married his wife Francis, a free woman. Because of her status, King needed permission from his master to marry her. Without question, King gained permission from his master Godwin, again showing the close relationship the two shared.
The fond memories of working all day, meeting Francis for lunch on the river and going for strolls after work surely left King with a special feeling toward the bridge. Without bridge building, King and his wife never would have met.
Erecting a bridge for the first time across the Chattahoochee astonished many people throughout the surrounding areas.
King’s extraordinary process of building bridges for the first time over large bodies of water seems normal to modern engineers, but history shows the importance and innovation of his bridges for this time period.
Similar to the first bridge crossing the Chattahoochee built by King, Moore’s bridge between Newnan, Ga., and Carrolton, Ga., was another important bridge to King and his business. A three-way partnership took place during the building of Moore’s bridge, the Arizona Bridge Company, which proved important for King financially for the future.
Historically, this bridge is important because of the Civil War history that took place with King. King was summoned by the government to answer questions on who he was, where he was from and what his position during the war was.
King responded by explaining he was for the Union, yet he failed to mention that he sold leather items such as saddles to the Confederate army.
Bridge at Fort Gaines
Seemingly insignificant to many, the bridge at Fort Gaines exemplified the “longevity of Horace King Bridge Company” (French) for the King family. Many of King’s children shared passions for construction and building and took care of this particular bridge until the 1920s. Every repair served as a reminder of the hard work of King and showed the lasting impact of the Kings on the area.
King impacted many cities and towns around the Southeast through buildings and bridges, but to say his story ends there is false. King “had a street named after him in the 1880s in a small town in the South,” said Johnson. Breaking racial barriers years before the Civil Rights movement is just one of the ways King impacted the community.
The “Big” Red Oak Creek, the sole remaining King bridge, may fall victim to time, but the legend of Horace King will continue. “We just wish that more people knew his story,” said Kaye Minchew, director of the Troup County Archives. “It’s much more than a rags to riches story. History shouldn’t forget somebody like Horace King.”