I had not decided what to write about this week until I came across an article in a May 10, 1842, Columbus newspaper announcing that construction was about to start on a bridge across the Tombigbee River at Columbus. The 175th anniversary of the commencing of the construction of the first bridge over the river at Columbus is worth noting. Though construction began in 1842, the bridge was not completed until 1844. It was designed and its construction was directed by Horace King, a slave owned by Alabama and Georgia bridge builder John Goodwin. The Columbus bridge was the project of Tuscaloosa businessman Robert Jemison who had a large grist mill and sawmill operation at Steens on the Luxapalia.
The article stated:
It gives us great pleasure to be able to state that the entire capital stock of the Columbus Bridge Company, has been taken, and that the work will be speedily commenced, and vigorously executed. Messrs. Robt. Jemison, Jr. and Seth King (no relation to Harace King) of Tuscaloosa, have taken the stock. Mr. Jemison has a fine set of saw mills on the Luxapalila, near this place, from which all the necessary timbers can be procured. Mr. King was the builder, and at present, is the principal owner, of the bridge at Cheraw, S. C, at Wetumpka, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We understand that the bridge will be thrown across the river immediately below Col A. J. Calhoun’s Warehouse. (it was on the river near the foot of 3rd Avenue South) The following named gentlemen compose the Board of Directors, viz: W. L. Harris, E. F. Calhoun, Dr. J.H. Hand, Hardy Stevens, and J.N. Mullin. W.L. Harris, President, E. F. Calhoun, Sec. and Robert Jemison, Jr., Treasurer.”
The building of that bridge across the Tombigbee was the first major construction project in Columbus. The bridge was built by Horace King, a black engineer who in the mid-1800s was considered the best bridge builder in the south. He earned that reputation while a slave, owned by John Goodwin, who sent King around the south building bridges. Unheard of in the antebellum South, King, while a slave, rode unsupervised inside stage coaches with the white passengers. He at other times while a slave was the sole supervisor of other slaves including transporting them across state lines. Those actions were contrary to law and custom. King’s association in business with Goodwin and Jemison and his reputation as a bridge builder gave him freedom of action and movement not allowed other slaves.
Goodwin and Jemison petitioned the Alabama legislature that King be emancipated in a manner that did not place on him many restrictions placed on free blacks in Alabama. He was emancipated by legislative act on February 3, 1846. After receiving his freedom he entered into partnership with Goodwin, his former owner and continued working with Jemison.
It was because of Robert Jemison, a Tuscaloosa resident with business interests in Columbus, that Horace King came to Columbus. Jemison had purchased land around Columbus and Pickensville, Alabama, and his nephew Green T. Hill operated his stage line out of Columbus. Jemison also developed a large grist mill and sawmill complex at Steens on the Luxapalila. His Steens mill was a three story brick building with grinding stones for both corn and wheat. By the mid-1840s the mill could produce 4,000 barrels of flour a year. The sawmill could cut up to 2,500 board feet a day.
King started construction on the Columbus Tombigbee bridge in 1842. It was a wooden covered bridge that came off of the river bluff at 4th Avenue South and was 420 feet long and 65 feet high. The footing for the bridge is still visible as a flat earthen platform on the side of the bluff. King also built bridges over the Luxapalila and Yellow Creek, both of which survived into the 20th Century. A 1936 Memphis Commercial Appeal article said the Luxapalila bridge was 94 years old and was the oldest bridge still in use in Mississippi. During the Civil War, King sided with the Confederacy and was a private contractor helping construct gunboats for the Confederate Navy at Columbus, Georgia. After the war ended he and his sons became some of the most prominent bridge builders in the South.
Goodwin died in 1859 and King purchased an expensive marble monument for him inscribed with Goodwin’s name, birth and death dates and “This stone was placed here by Horace King, In lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.” During the Civil War, Horace King supported the Confederacy and a camp of the United Confederate Veterans (the organization of former Confederate soldiers) named a camp in Alabama after him. The story of Horace King and the events of 175 years ago make for a fascinating story. An excellent book on Horace King is Bridging Deep South Rivers by John Lupold and Thomas French, University of Georgia Press. It was my late friend Sam Kaye who got me interested in King years ago and Sam’s assistance is credited in the book.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.