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Free bridge travel once was a luxury

POSTED: May 3, 2009 1:00 a.m.

As the automobile began to show up more around the turn of the 20th century, the demand for more roads and bridges increased. They sometimes became embroiled in controversy.

Bridges were few and far between across such wide streams as the Chattahoochee River in the early days of North Georgia. Ferries were the most common way to cross the waters if a shallow ford wasn't available.

Private citizens most often operated river ferries, and they charged a fee to carry people, livestock or wagons across. Toll bridges followed the ferries.

Forsyth and Hall citizens in the late 1800s campaigned for "free" bridges, paid for by taxpayers, rather than having to pay a toll every time they used ferries or bridges across the Chattahoochee. Forsyth residents were mighty happy when a bridge connected Flowery Branch with their county. It became one of the first "free" bridges, for which users didn't have to pay a toll.

The iron bridge on Light's Ferry Road continued to be used until Lake Lanier formed, said longtime Flowery Branch resident Charlotte Westbrook, and that location now is on one of the widest parts of the lake. Her father, mail carrier William Nathaniel Westbrook, crossed it many times.

When the bridge first opened for free traffic in the late 1800s, Forsyth citizens wrote, "This has greatly relieved the pocketbooks of our citizens and materially added to their trade and prosperity."

They lobbied for Hall and Forsyth counties to purchase Brown's Bridge, which was operated as a toll bridge by a private citizen. They wanted it to become a "free" bridge, too.

"Mr. Allen, the present owner, offers the property on terms that will make it an exceedingly good investment for both counties," the Forsyth County folks wrote. "The rock piers alone are worth the money asked."

Not to stop there, they also campaigned for building a "free" bridge at Keith's ferry crossing.

Bridges were the issue in the southern and western sections of Hall County at that time, but not everybody saw roads and bridges as progress. In 1901, a "road war" raged among people in the extreme southern part of Hall County known as the Roberts District.

Hall County commissioners had laid out and approved a road from Shadburn's ferry to Buford. Shadburn's Ferry Road continues to exist, running through Buford to Little Shoal Creek Park on Lake Lanier. The road once connected Hall County to what is now the site of Lake Lanier Islands.

But during the controversy in 1901, Commissioner J.A. Higgins already had directed the work to cut the road. The workers though for some reason refused to grade it. A faction led by G.H. White wanted the road, but another faction led by M.E. Pass opposed it. Neither would compromise, and Higgins couldn't get the crew to continue to work the road.

Commission Chair John A. Smith worked on a compromise, but said if the two sides couldn't agree, he would let them and the road alone. He apparently got the two sides together eventually because the road was built after a controversy in the Roberts Crossroads area that lasted more than seven years.

Perhaps that road was the early beginnings of the rapid development that has characterized that area in recent years. Brothers White, Pass and Smith would not recognize that area today as it is covered up by residential and commercial development.

New bridges across the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers opened in the spring of 1933. The one crossing the Chattahoochee was north of Keith's Bridge near the convergence of the two rivers. The Chestatee bridge was near Grant's Ford in the northwestern part of Hall County. Both bridges were built from iron from the Chattahoochee's "New Bridge" that had been replaced by a concrete bridge.

The new Chattahoochee bridge was named in honor of County Commissioner J. Perino Davis. The Chestatee bridge was named in honor of W.T. Martin, a former county commissioner. Both commissioners had been the primary movers in getting the bridges built.

Keith's covered bridge burned in 1952. A temporary bridge at the site went up in 1953, serving until Buford Dam backed up the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers to form Lake Lanier.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesville times.com.



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