August 19, 2013

New structure offers bridge into the past

Whitfield County Buildings & Grounds workers build span over creek at Tunnel Hill to complete walking path

By Mitch Talley, Whitfield County director of communications

— Back in 1864, when the Confederate and Union troops were fighting at Tunnel Hill, they would surely have appreciated having an easy way to cross the creek in the middle of the battlefield.

Unfortunately for those soldiers, they had to cross the creek and swamp there without the luxury of a bridge like the one recently completed by the Whitfield County Buildings & Grounds department.

Fortunately for the thousands of spectators and re-enactors expected at this year’s Battle of Tunnel Hill Re-enactment the weekend after Labor Day, however, the new bridge will definitely make getting around the site much easier.

The bridge is the final link in a mile-and-a-half-long walking path around the 85-acre site, which was donated to the county several  years ago by Kenneth Holcomb.

“It’s turned out to be a beautiful bridge,” said Gary Brown, Buildings & Grounds director. “It’s going to give the people of Whitfield County a complete walking trail around the Tunnel Hill Holcomb Park. Working with the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation and the Heritage Center and the city of Tunnel Hill and the Dalton CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau), all of them together, they’ve made a pretty park out of it.”

Whitfield County and Tunnel Hill officials had wanted to build the bridge for years, but “when the initial part of the bridge was laid out and designed by the state, when grants were looked at, the cost was phenomenal — out of reach for the county,” Brown said. “But by building it in-house, we were able to do it for considerably less.”

County crews started construction about six weeks ago, working off and on as time allowed and having to be careful not to disturb the site because of federal  and state regulations about working so close to a creek.

“My boys have really spent a lot of long, hard, hot hours in that swamp, a lot of it by hand,” Brown said, “because you can’t use mechanical equipment like backhoes and track loaders in there. You’re trying to preserve and keep all of the wildlife and vegetation alive and not hurt any of it. We worked a lot of strenuous hours carrying the timbers in because we couldn’t run equipment in there.”

While they were able to use a small John Deere tractor to bore the pilot holes for the support posts, “then we had to hand dig all of the holes out, clean them out, tamp them all in, and carry the posts in,” Brown said.

The hard work paid off with a handsome 225-foot-long bridge that soars as high as nine feet above the water and includes three benches carved along the sides for weary walkers to take a break and look down into the waters of the creek.

“Before the bridge was done, when you came to the creek, you had to turn and go up by the Clisby Austin House to finish the walking path,” Brown said. “This way you’ll be able to walk an actual graveled path the whole way around without having to worry about snakes or critters.”

Having finished the bridge Friday, Aug. 9, the county now will redo part of the path so that it will pass through the Union and Confederate camps during the annual re-enactment.

“By moving that part of the trail, it’s going to give a lot more of seeing the true look of the battle,” Brown said, “and it’ll be real nice during the re-enactment because people can walk around those trails and actually walk through the camps where the re-enactors are camping and they can see how they lived during the Civil War.”

Though the work was hot and tiresome, Brown and his crew found the construction to be a rewarding change from their normal tasks of maintaining county buildings.

“It was really a change, something exciting for us because it was something we’ve never done before. It’s another case of ‘This one and one more will be our second!’” he said with a laugh.

While Brown and his team had earlier built a 50-foot bridge over another part of the creek nearby, it wasn’t “near as intense and in-depth as what we did on this one. We had to make something that would accommodate a lot more people, and add the creeks, the swamps, the real sensitive areas of the property, and it was a big job,”  he said.

Helping with the construction of the bridge were Chuck Fetzer, Gary Baldridge, Steve Adams and Keith Hall, all of Whitfield County Public Works, and Raymond Putnam, maintenance director for Tunnel Hill. Two other county workers — Chris Cooper and Bobby Blackwell — took care of Buildings & Ground’s usual duties in town allowing the others to work on the bridge.

The bridge is designed mainly for pedestrians, but at six feet across, it’s wide enough — and sturdy enough — for the Tunnel Hill golf cart used for tours to go across, if need be.

“We put our heads together and came up with a design and stuck with it pretty close,” Brown said. “The timbers are rustic; they look like they did back in the time of the Civil War. They are pressure-treated and will last a lifetime. It’s built to stay, and it’ll sure be there long after we’re gone.”

Brown and his crew are hopeful that visitors to the park will enjoy their work. “When people walk on it, they can see the vegetation, see the wildlife, see the tadpoles and little minnows that are there,” he said. “While we were building it, we saw quite a few deer and a lot of turkey. It’s a really beautiful spot out there.

“My crew and myself, we’re proud of it,” he said. “It’s going to be something that we can always stick our name on and say we did that, kind of like it was when we did the tunnel a few years back. No one else ever got to clean out a hole through the mountain and wire it, and it’s the same way with the bridge now. It’s another one of those things that you’ll probably only do once in a lifetime.”