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McAfee Bridge: Discovering some (almost) hidden history

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What is it about bridges? I’ve never been quite sure, but I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to falling for the spell that old bridges seem to cast. The older the bridge, the better — and it seems most of them have some sort of story to tell.

The other day I stumbled across a new (to me) piece of bridge history for the very first time, even though I’d been driving by it for decades. It’s the remains of the old covered bridge that used to cross the Chattahoochee at Holcomb Bridge Road.

Known as McAfee’s Bridge, the covered bridge that once stood there was built in 1834. Robert McAfee, who owned the land there, decided a bridge across the river would be a good idea. Before the bridge was built, the only way across was via a ferry operated in the 1820s by Charles Gates, an early settler in the area. This ferry was located about 200 feet downstream of the current Holcomb Bridge structure, and it’s said that traces of the original ferry road can still be seen.

By 1833, it appears Gates sold the ferry to one Robert McAfee. Yes, the ferry was good. But a bridge would definitely be better — and one of the first steps McAfee took toward building a bridge was to construct the columns that would support it. Modern bridges use supports built from concrete or steel, but this one would be held up by nothing but native rock. No cement or mortar was used. Instead, the columns were constructed simply placing large flat rocks one on top of the other until the column reached the desired height.

Eventually, the 220-foot-long bridge was completed, and for many years it was the only structure (except for a Western and Atlantic railroad bridge) which crossed the river in the area.

That, of course, gave it a key role during the Civil War. On July 5, 1864, retreating Confederate troops burned the bridge in an attempt to stop their Union pursuers, but Union troops soon rebuilt it and used it to launch several cavalry attacks on the Confederates.

Eventually, a few weeks before Atlanta fell, Sherman himself burned the bridge to keep Confederates from going after the shifting Union forces.

In the years following the Civil War, money was tight and the bridge was not rebuilt right away. Instead, ferry service resumed. Later, in the early 1900s, a single-lane steel truss bridge was constructed at the site — still utilizing those original stacked-stone columns. Later still, in the 1960s, the first modern two-lane concrete bridge was built nearby.

And the stone columns still stood.

What’s there now? As it turns out, one of the original stone columns still stands in the river near the west bank, just a little ways downriver from the current Holcomb Bridge. It’s right next to Garrard Landing, a city of Roswell park area adjacent to the Johns Creek Environment Campus (an elegant building designed in the style of a late 19th century textile mill but actually a sewage treatment facility.) The park is named for the family which previously owned the land and which was very interested in preserving it for the future. It’s definitely not named for Union General Kenner Garrard, who got a little happy with his matches and set fire to Roswell’s textile mills.

Between the Garrard Landing parking area and the Johns Creek Environmental Campus is a short trail which features, among other things, a modern-day reconstruction of a very short covered bridge built in the style of the original. It’s fascinating to look at the structural details and imagine what the original bridge must have been like.

But all we can do is imagine. Except for a few historic photos, that stone pillar is all that remains of the original McAfee bridge.

Can you check out this unique piece of history yourself? Kind of. You can glimpse it as you drive across Holcomb Bridge, and you can see it well from the bridge’s sidewalk. In theory, it’s also visible from Garrard Landing Park.

But access to what should be a great riverside viewing point in Garrard Landing is challenging due to thick undergrowth. In fact, at this time of year, the jungle-like tangle of trees, vines and who knows what all but obscures the view from land and makes it nearly impossible to see from the faint trail which leads in its direction.

How about it, Roswell? Here’s a great opportunity for a little clean-up work, or at least some trail maintenance, to provide a safe place from which to view this fascinating piece of history.


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