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Albany’s Bridge House

Albany’s Bridge House

The construction of the two-story Bridge Hall and Flint River bridge were part of the transportation revolution that came to Albany in the last few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This was engineered by Nelson Tift whose goal was to expand Albany into a major agriculture center through the development and improvement of transportation lines to and from the southwest Georgia community. Tift (1810-1891), a transplanted Connecticut Yankee and the principal founder of Albany, had been the advance man for a group of Hawkinsville lad developers in 1836. In the fall of that year he proceeded by boat up the Flint River to the property these men had acquired and began laying out the streets and lots of Albany on the west bank.

In his constant occupation of spurring Albany’s growth, Tift saw the advantages of bringing the railroad to Albany and improving transportation across Flint River. In 1857, the Georgia and Florida Railroad (Tift was president of the company) was extended from Americus to Albany. And the following year Tift replaced his Flint River ferry with a toll bridge. The bridge had certain advantages over the ferry. Bad weather and floods interrupted ferry crossings. The bridge would eliminate the steep descent and ascent the Broad Street ferry terminus and make it easier to transport heavy loads between Albany and the rich agricultural area on the east side of the river. When Tift and his associates received their franchise to build and operate the bridge from the Georgia General Assembly, the Albany entrepreneur let the contract for the span to Dr. A.J. Robinson of Columbus who turned the project over to the black master bridge builder Horace King (1807-1887) of LaGrange. King, an ex-slave whose freedom had been purchased, built the 930 foot long bridge and the Bridge Hall. The former was severely damaged several times by both flood and fire. The latter has stood for a century and a quarter.

The Bridge Hall, as laid out by Tift and King, was a two story multi-purpose building situated on Tift’s Front Street lot with a street grade level that approximated that of Isabella Road (now East Broad Avenue) on the east bank. The structure was designed to control the bridge’s traffic by requiring those crossing the river to pass through the building right by the toll collector’s office. This was done by leaving open the center section of the structure, grading its clay fill to come off of Front Street and meet the elevation of the wooden floored trestle bridge taking off from the rear of the hall to span the stream. It was necessary that the bridge be elevated its entire length above the long slope from the streets down to the river bed.

Horace King used heart pine and brick from local clay in construction the Bridge Hall. He left cellars under the supporting ends of the building and provided a high ceilinged, sixteen windowed hall over the entire upper floor, to be reached only by outside stairways on the north and south ends of the structure. So the street level was divided into thirds, the center open under brick arches still easily noted, with an office for Colonel Tift and his business in the south section and the north area fitted for the bridgekeeper. The cellars were dirt floored and accessible only from the rear through gateways in the brick wall. With the falloff of the land back from the street toward the river, one actually stepped up unto these cave-like cellars.

A notable feature of King’s work are the four massive brick chimneys balancing each other, two in the north wall and two in the south. Each chimney has three flue openings and three fireplaces, one on each level. On the upper floors, these provided heat while those down on the clay-floored cellars had additional utility. During the Civil War one cellar was used for cutting and processing meat for the Confederate forces, the slope down toward the river being turned into a huge holding pen for livestock. The cellar on the south side was an arsenal and the whole building served the Southern side as a warehouse well located to ship downriver by boat or north by rail.

In 1915, when this property was first occupied by our firm, the flues from the cellar floor on the north side carried up the smoke and heat of young P.A. Keenan’s forges. He had begun the business of blacksmithing, wheelwrighting and general repair in 1914 under the name Empire Smithing Company. Originally located on Commerce Street (now Oglethorpe Boulevard) Keenan (1891-1968) rented the Bridge Hall the following year and moved his operations here.

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