The first bridge in Nashville, which was also the first bridge over the Cumberland River, was built in 1823 at the northeast corner of the city's public square, near the location where the Victory Memorial Bridge now stands. It was a three-span, covered toll bridge constructed of wood and iron, supported by stone abutments on each bank, and two stone piers in the river channel. In the late 1830's thousands of Cherokees crossed this bridge on the Trail of Tears. By the mid-nineteenth century, the new generation of steamboats was too tall to pass under the bridge, so in 1850 the first Woodland Street Bridge was built to replace it. The 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge was then dismantled in 1851.
While researching the Trail of Tears route through Nashville, the Native History Association discovered that the west abutment of the 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge still exists, almost completely intact. The massive stone structure is in a surprisingly good state of preservation, considering it's been completely neglected for more than 160 years.
On November 14, 2012, with assistance from the environmental group Save The Cumberland, we visited the base of the west abutment by boat, the only safe way to access the structure currently. The photograph below is a front view of the abutment.
The stone abutment on the east side of the river stood intact until it was heavily impacted by the construction of the Victory Memorial Bridge in the 1950's. Only the bottom 5 courses (rows) of stone still exist in place.
On November 23, 2013, with major assistance from the National Park Service, Historic Nashville, Inc., and Save The Cumberland, we brought bridge engineer and historic bridge expert Jim Barker, of J.A Barker Engineering, down from Indiana to inspect the structure. Based on his observations, he is confident that it is an abutment of the 1823 bridge
The 1823 Nashville Toll Bridge site lies on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. It was considered to be a high-potential interpretive site by the National Park Service even before the discovery of the abutments, which may be the only remaining documented bridge structures associated with the Trail of Tears in the country. The significance of the site is further enhanced by the fact that the bridge was designed by Lewis Wernwag, an influential engineer who developed several innovative construction techniques and built many famous bridges in the early nineteenth century.
The west abutment is in relatively good shape, but it is in an extremly vulnerable condition. Trees and vegetation growing along the top are damaging the stonework. The photo below shows damage on one corner of the structure cause by tree roots. Also, if the trees were to fall, from a high wind for example, they could pull stones off of the top and the sides. It's our hope that measures will be taken very soon to remove the trees and vegetation and stabilize the top of the structure.
The site is undeveloped and currently is not open to the public, but we are participating in continuing discussions with representatives of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville, the state of Tennessee, and federal agencies regarding plans for preserving and protecting the site, as well as utilizing it as an educational resource for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
During 2014, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) made great progress in stabilizing the bridge site. During the week of 3/10/2014, a TDOT crew cleaned up the site and cleared the vegetation and large trees from the bridge abutment, removing the threat they posed to the structure. This took a significant amount of time and resources and we want to thank TDOT Commissioner John Schroer for making the commitment to take care of the site and then following through with it. Thanks also to TDOT's Regional 3 Maintenance Supervisor Burel Tidwell, and Gerald Kline, TDOT's Archaeology Manager.
TDOT also plans to install interpretive signs and a viewing platform at the site in the near future. For now, the top of the abutment can be seen from the sidewalk along the Gay Street Connector in downtown Nashville. The site is next to the Victory Memorial Bridge, and TDOT has erected a green chain link fence around the property. See the photo below.
Native History Association Facebook Albums:
"The First Bridge Over The Cumberland" - A collection of newspaper articles about the Nashville Toll Bridge, dated from 1818 to 1824. From Nashville History, a blog by Debie Oeser Cox.
"Colossus Bridge Designer - Lewis Wernwag" - An article about Lewis Wernwag in Structure magazine by Dr. F.E. Griggs, Jr.
"Colossus Bridge Designer - Lewis Wernwag" - An article about Lewis Wernwag in Structure magazine by Frank Griggs, Jr.
"The Colossus of the Schuylkill River" - An article about Lewis Wernwag's most famous bridge in Structure magazine by Frank Griggs, Jr.
"Lewis Wernwag, Engineer" - A Facebook page managed by Native History Association President Pat Cummins
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail - National Park Service