Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 2, 2013

Swinging bridges: A reflection of our past that has carried through to present

Sunbeams dance on the surface, rippling across the water like fireflies in the night sky. The water pools around the rocks and boulders, a foot or two deep at best, before lunging forward in its quest down river.

A river runs through my community — my hometown. It cuts it into pieces, yet draws it closer. On this day of fishing, the rainbow trout aren’t biting but the redeye are. As are the mosquitoes and the flies. It is what one expects during a peaceful afternoon on the riverbank.

I’ve watched the Bluestone trickle through droughts and rage through floods. But, no matter the season or the weather, it’s always there — a constant force in a tiny town.

In my small hometown there are four bridges within a roadside mile. In the blink of an eye one can be on one side of the Bluestone, or the other.

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I ride along our meandering country roads as a child on my bike. My best friend, and one-day spouse, rides with me. At age 11-ish, life is good and carefree. We debate the merits of the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Dallas Cowboys.

Riding along River Road between Montcalm and Bramwell, now Simmons River Road thanks to enhanced 911 mapping, we spot a swinging bridge. There are several of these planked structures between the two towns. They connect the main road with a home. For two kids, it’s a curiosity too good to resist.

Parking our bikes beside the road, we dismount and start across the bridge. It weaves. It shimmies. Missing planks intensify the moment. The drop to the Bluestone seems a mile-high; in reality it’s probably about 15 feet.

On a double-dog dare we cross the bridge. Our hearts beat frantically; we worry of impending doom. But, all too soon, we make it across and back — safely.

It’s a dramatic moment to share with friends, and to keep in our minds forever.

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Swinging bridges used to be a common sight in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. A Daily Telegraph Facebook posting last week asking readers to share knowledge of such bridges drew numerous responses.

Many recalled former and current swinging bridges in McDowell County, including those at Bradshaw, Wilmore and War.

The Atwell Swinging Bridge in Atwell, near Bartley on Route 83 is still used, wrote Wanda Woody. “There is a huge ball field on the other side with concession, bathrooms, dugouts, play and picnic area. It is used by most of the T-ball, little league, softball teams in the area.”

And Janine Barnett Burgan recalled one at Hemphill. “We used to have to walk across that thing for (Hemphill Elementary) band practice in the bottom. [It] used to scare me to death.”

Others recalled such bridges in Draper, Va., near Herdon, near Mullens and in Grundy, Va.

Betty Horne remembered using such a bridge as a child. “We use to have to cross the Clinch River on a swinging bridge at Maxwell to visit my dad’s sister. I think it is no longer there, but I do remember the missing planks.”

“Run down 460 then cut over toward Pikeville,” wrote Charley McCoy. “There are a few not in use, nor should ever have been, but a few that are. Most folks have trucked in gravel and ford it these days.”

In Mercer County, readers posted about swinging bridges at Rock, Willowton, near Spanishburg and Lake Bottom, and one in Bramwell behind the train depot that is still used regularly.

And Thomas Vest recalled one off Rock River Road. “My grandparents lived across the stream there with the only access being the swinging bridge.”

A swinging bridge at Freeman near Bramwell is also still in use. Back in the 1990s I interviewed those who lived at the residence for a Lifestyles story. They would park their cars on one side of the river, then carry groceries and other necessities across the bridge to their home.

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The swinging bridge I crossed as a child decayed and fell many years ago. I believe it was the floods of 2001, ’02 and ’03 that struck the final death blows. A pillar or two is all that remains.

I wish I had thought to take a photo so some vestige would remain. But the memory of the day — the scare, the sway, the wobble — will have to do.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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