The King of Bridges

On the Arabian Mountain Trail in DeKalb County, Georgia, a covered bridge was envisioned to resemble the vestiges of an earlier time in America. The bridge does more than bring back memories of historic covered bridges, it also pays tribute to one of the South’s most prominent bridge builders of the 19th century, Horace King. Architect Merle Grimes of Colorado based the design of the wood covering on the work done by King during the 1800’s. The wood lattice mimics the Town lattice truss bridge design invented by Ithiel Town and utilized by King in the building of over a hundred bridges in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

The story of Horace King is a compelling tale of a man who overcame great odds to become a master bridge builder. Born a slave in South Carolina in 1807, Horace King learned the art of bridge building from his owner, John Godwin. Godwin treated King more like a business partner than a slave and the two teamed up to build several bridges across the Chattahoochee River in West Georgia and East Alabama. Even when his finances started to fail, Godwin refused numerous high prices offers for King. Along with attorney Robert T. Jemison, Godwin worked to secure King’s freedom from slavery. Emancipation was a difficult task before the Civil War, but Godwin and Jemison traveled to Ohio to start the process and in 1846 the General Assembly of Alabama granted Horace King his freedom.

The two friends continued to work on bridge projects over the next decade. Godwin’s health and financial condition declined and in 1859 he died, leaving no estate for his wife and children. King paid his burial expenses and provided a residence for his widow and children. He even erected a $600 marble headstone over Godwin’s grave.

King went on to build bridges in the post-Civil War South, as well as homes and commercial buildings. His name was even placed on the ballot as a candidate for state representative of Russell County, Alabama. Since he was working on a construction project at the time, he did not want to serve. So he stood outside the polling place on election day urging voters to scratch his name off the ballot. He was elected in spite of this and went on to serve two terms in the Alabama Legislature.

Three of his sons joined him in the construction business and the King Brothers Bridge Company continued to build bridges well into the late 1800’s. One of King’s bridges, over Red Oak Creek in Meriwether County, Georgia, is still in use today. Known as a sturdy bridge, it survived a 1994 flood in which the water level was so high that someone was able to actually canoe through the covered bridge. After leaving his mark on the South for more than half a century, Horace King died on May 27, 1888 in LaGrange, Georgia, at the age of 80. A monument in Phenix City, Alabama best describes King’s legacy: “He did not change the currents of social history, but he did transcend them and stands as a reminder of our common humanity, the potential of human spirit, the power of mutual respect.”

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