April 15, 2024

You almost always know bridge builders when you meet them. They bring people together, share aspirations and inspire others. DeKalb County government’s CEO Michael Thurmond is a bridge builder.
Recently, Thurmond took the lead in crediting, honoring, remembering, and paying tribute to an illustrious family of bridge builders, and particularly Washington W. King (1843-1910) and his father Horace King (1807-1885), patriarch of the bridge-building King family.
In 1891, in Athens, Georgia, Washington W. King was selected to engineer, design, and construct an all-wood covered bridge to provide passage across the Oconee River from rural eastern Clarke County to downtown Athens, College Avenue, and the University of Georgia. That bridge was relocated from Athens to Stone Mountain in 1965.
The Stone Mountain Memorial Association has had the W.W. King Bridge added to the National Register of Historic Places, and on Sept. 16, the bridge was formally renamed and dedicated in honor of W.W. King and his family. On hand for the ceremony were two King family descendants, Rebecca King Rosenberg and her sister Kathleen King Hawrylak. The sisters are direct descendants of W.W. King’s brother, John Thomas King (1846-1926), making them great-great-great nieces.
W.W. King had grown up in the family business, under the tutelage of his father; he particularly learned how to build bridges that used “town lattice” for their truss.
The covered bridge at Stone Mountain Park, now rededicated as the Washington W. King/College Avenue Bridge, is 131 years old, still doing its job well most every day, connecting the more natural southeastern side of Stone Mountain Park to Indian Island across a narrow inlet of Stone Mountain Lake.
The all-timber bridge was constructed by hand, just 25 years after the Civil War, without the benefit of gas or electric power tools or transport. The King family would build dozens of similar spans across the American South. Patriarch Horace King learned carpentry and engineering while enslaved to John Goodwin (1798-1859). With the support of his once slave master, with whom Horace King had learned the trade and constructed numerous bridges and other structures, Horace King secured his emancipation and freedom in 1846.
Horace King and his wife, a free woman, Florence Gould Thomas (1825-1864), would raise five children, four brothers and one sister, each of whom would enter the bridge-building business. Following his father’s death, W.W. King would relocate with his wife and family to Athens, Georgia, to build his own enterprise, the Bridge Company.
“It speaks to who they were, who we are, and more importantly, to who we can become,” said Thurmond during some occasionally emotional remarks about the importance of honoring a Black man – the son of a freed slave – as well as his family, for their contributions to Georgia, and most specifically for bridge building.
The bridge in Athens was built for horse and buggy and lasted well into the era of the automobile. The wooden bridge was seriously damaged twice by flooding, in 1910 and again in 1961.
The second flood tore the bridge from its moorings, and not long after it was replaced by a span of concrete and steel. While still bridging the Oconee, Thurmond frequently rode across the span in the back of his father’s truck. Thurmond’s father was a sharecropper who often carried crops to area farmers’ markets. Those journeys were often at night, and young Thurmond said he found the bridge then to be creaky, and a bit scary, concerned that he and his father might end their journey at the bottom of the Oconee River.
The bridge was moved to the banks of the Oconee after that second flood and later sold to Stone Mountain Memorial Association for the sum of $1.00 to be relocated as a historic feature within the park. Though the bridge originally cost less than $3,000 to construct, its relocation and reassembly totaled $37,000.00. In addition to renaming and rededicating the historic bridge, a trail encircling Indian Island has been officially named as King’s Trail. W.W. King and his extended King family have become the first African Americans officially honored within Stone Mountain Park.
“W.W. King, as well as his family and descendants, have been great bridgebuilders, literally and figuratively,” said Stone Mountain Memorial Association Chair, Rev. Abraham Mosley, also for nearing five-decades the pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Athens, and no slouch of a bridgebuilder himself.
In these divided times, we could certainly use a few more like the Kings, as well as Rev. Mosley and Thurmond. Be a Bridge Builder.
Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.
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