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When Helen Stell discovered a large piece of wood buried in the sand on the shore of Lake Lanier behind her home three years ago, she knew there was a story behind it.
After hauling the piece from place to place and talking to old-timers in east Hall County, she finally confirmed it was from the covered Browning Bridge, which washed away in 1946. The bridge that once spanned the Chattahoochee River east of Lula meant a lot to people in the community, and those who saw the bridge timber wanted to touch it as if it were an old friend reviving fond memories.
Several bridges destroyed in the 1946 flood were replaced, but not Browning Bridge, much to the sorrow of those who depended on it for their livelihood, recreation and connection to friends and family.
"It was a part of so many people's lives," said Stell after talking to Curtis and Ruth Cagle. She also talked to members of the White family, who lived near the bridge. North Browning Bridge Road off Clarks Bridge Road led to the bridge crossing the Chattahoochee to near where South Browning Bridge Road and Cagle Road off White Sulphur Road are today.
Few cars used the bridge, which could be a bit shaky for horses, wagons or people walking through. It wasn't unusual in those days to walk five or six miles to such schools as Whitehall three miles away, to Dewberry Church or to visit friends or relatives.
Before Curtis Cagle would cross the bridge to visit his grandmother, he would check to see if any planks had been moved by people fishing from the middle of the bridge at night. After the flood destroyed the bridge, he had to travel Clark's Bridge Road, then up what is now Pine Valley Road to Vandiver's store and over White Sulphur Road to the "bottoms," an area along the river now covered by the lake.
J.C. White, 83, was one of nine children whose family worked farmland near the bridge. He caught fish from the bridge to help feed the family. He watched that day in January 1946 when heavy rains rapidly raised the river level. It seemed to him like 50 feet of water rushing downstream as the bridge began to sway before falling apart.
That changed his way of life. After the flood, it took most of the day to reach the bottoms, sometimes using a boat to haul cotton, corn or other crops. Roads in the area had knee-deep ruts at times.
Not only had he used the bridge to get to his crops, but it was how he courted his girlfriends. White would take them there at night, and his brothers would be at one end to scare them into his arms. The bridge being out cramped his love life, lengthening his travel time from 20 minutes to a half day to get to his crops or his girlfriends.
"It put a hurtin' on everybody," White said. "It ruined the community. We didn't really know how much the bridge meant until it washed away."
Almagene White Clark's father would take her to the foot of the bridge to learn to swim, but, now 81, she never learned. One of her sad memories is watching the car carrying her brother up the hill toward White Sulphur to return to the military in World War II. She never saw him again.
Grady White, 70, a retired minister, remembers walking the high rails on Browning Bridge and having good success fishing. That night in January 1946 he heard the waters rushing higher and higher. The next morning the bridge was gone.
Frank White, 76, used the bridge for play time after chores were finished. His father taught him to swim under the bridge. At night, the bridge was a scary place because it creaked and crackled as you crossed it.
The timber Helen Stell found might be one of those Curtis Cagle saw sticking out around the river bank and the mud after the flood. Bridge timbers were 10 to 12 inches wide and 3 inches thick. Grooves were hand cut to make each piece fit together with wooden pegs hammered into drilled holes to fasten the pieces together.
Stell would like her piece of Browning Bridge to be displayed in a public place such as the Northeast Georgia History Center as a reminder of the old way of life.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.