When I was growing up, going to my grandparents’ house really did involve
a trip “over the river and through the woods,” just like the song. Every few
weeks, we would visit them at their farm outside Jasper, TN. Before
Interstate 24 was completed – bisecting their farm – our route was Cummings
Highway (a.k.a. U.S. routes 41-64-72) which took us through the woods of the
Tennessee River Gorge and across the river on the Marion Memorial Bridge.
The opening of the Marion Memorial Bridge in the early 1930’s provided a
boost to transportation between Chattanooga and points west. It was part of
a $1,000,000 highway between Jasper and Chattanooga that had been advocated
by Hamilton County Judge Will Cummings.
The September 2, 1930 Chattanooga Times reported that the site for the
bridge was selected over another location at Kelly’s Ferry. The legislature
had originally authorized the bridge to be built at the ferry location on
the piers placed by the Memphis-Charleston Railroad Company. In 1929, the
legislature modified the plan in favor of a site downstream of Hale’s Bar
Dam, where the river was more narrow and had more stable bedrock.
The new bridge and its piers rose high above an area filled with history.
Frank P. Fletcher wrote of that history in a 1936 report filed at the
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library. At its eastern end,
Running Water Town had once been the domain of Dragging Canoe and the
Chickamaugans. Union soldiers had crossed the river on pontoon bridges
during the Civil War. In easy view from the bridge was Hales’s Bar Dam,
which furnished hydroelectric power to Chattanooga several years before TVA.
The western end of the bridge was anchored to a rocky bluff. The eastern
approach, though, required several piers of ascending height. I recall that
as we headed home from visiting my grandparents, the descent from the bridge
was almost like riding a roller coaster. Crossing each pier, our station
wagon seemed to become airborne for a few seconds.
The Marion Memorial Bridge was dedicated in memory of the war dead of Marion
County. To offset the $475,871 initial cost and on-going maintenance, a 50
cent toll was imposed on each vehicle crossing the bridge. My mother
recalled that one of my grandmother’s second or third cousins, John Lawson,
worked at the toll booth of the bridge.
The toll remained in effect at the Marion Memorial Bridge and seven others
in the state until 1947. According to the February 5, 1947 Chattanooga
Times, the levies at some of the bridges were failing to pay the cost of
collecting them. However, the bridge near Jasper was found to be the most
profitable. The February 7, 1947 Times reported that John Lawson, chief
collector at the Marion County toll bridge, took a telephone call from Gov.
McCord’s administration instructing him to collect no more tolls.
Motorists from Nashville, Memphis, and Huntsville were then able to enjoy a
free ride across the bridge. U.S. routes 41, 64, and 72 took the tourists on
through the Tennessee River Gorge, where roadside America attractions such
as Pete’s Cider, The Jungle reptile farm, and Mullins Cove Restaurant
awaited. Traffic was often heavy in the days before Interstate 24, and much
of the route was a two lane highway. I remember that we once got stuck
behind a slow-moving pickup truck whose driver apparently didn’t realize
that his left turn signal was blinking.
In the mid-1960’s, the construction of Nickajack Lake required that the
Marion Memorial Bridge be raised in order to provide minimum clearance for
river traffic. Using two hydraulic jacks at each end of the truss, workers
raised the bridge a total of 21 feet. The new Interstate 24 bridge carried
all east-west traffic until the Marion Memorial Bridge was situated at its
In recent years, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has been making
preparations to replace the Marion Memorial Bridge with a new steel plate
girder bridge. The March 22, 2003 Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that
the state was offering the old bridge for sale, though no buyers had stepped
forward. The bidding process is underway for the replacement, according to
the TDOT Web site.
If you have memories of the Marion Memorial Bridge, please send me an e-mail
Article by and used with permission of Harmon Jolley