It was a big thing. It is still a big thing. The thing is the bridge at Ball's Ferry. Way back some seventy years ago, the skeptics said that it was a bridge to nowhere. There were no highways leading to either side of the 1,683 foot long bridge. None of this mattered at all to the thousands of people from surrounding counties who gathered to get a closeup look at the first bridge over the Oconee River on the final day of March 1939. It was their bridge. And, they were proud of it. Last Friday a dozen seniors came back to relive old memories and remember the day when as kids they walked across the bridge for the first time.
Dennis Holder, Chairman of the Wilkinson County Board of Commissioners, hurriedly organized a ribbon cutting before the new bridge is scheduled to go into operation on Friday, January 22nd. A call was sent out to find as many of those people who were there the day the original bridge was dedicated to come back and walk across the bridge before it is opened to vehicular traffic.
Marlene Tompkins came. She was five years old when she watched her daddy, Mr. Cecil Lord, as he pushed wheel barrows full of cement and dumped them into wooden forms used to support the bridge. Mr. Lord kept the ferry at night and worked on the bridge during the day. "It was good work and he was glad to get it," Mrs. Tompkins added.
"I remember seeing 15 hogs cooking on the bar-b-que grill about where the new bridge is now," said Frank Mills. "My father bought me a new pair of shoes to wear. He got them from Mr. Murray Hall's store in Toomsboro. I think he paid five or six dollars for them. Before it was over, I had worn them completely out," Mills chuckled.
Ferry before the bridge.
A.W. Stuckey was there too. "I walked all the way across the bridge and then came back on the bottom side," he recollected. Stuckey remembered that the folks from Washington and Johnson counties met the folks from Wilkinson and Laurens County in the middle of the span. "I remember seeing lots of dignitaries everywhere. When the primary celebration was over, there was a big dance in the middle of the bridge that night. The bridge was really swaying that night." the ol' man recalled.
Perry Dominy's most vivid memory came just before the keynote speaker came to the podium. "I was a senior in high school and was trying to get a good look," Dominy remembered. As the Army band from Fort Benning was playing, someone suddenly shoved him out of the way. That someone was Gov. E.D. Rivers who was making his way to speak to the assembled multitude. "Gov. Rivers was never a favorite of mine," said Dominy, who added, "the bridge was a political football. He recalled that there were no roads there at the time because until that point travelers crossed the muddy river a short distance to the north at the ferry.
"My parents thought I was too little. So, I didn't get to come" said Annie Loyd Mason. But, Annie Mason was there last Friday. After seven decades Annie got her chance. She stepped onto the spotless concrete bridge and walked.
Paul and Hayden, great grandsons of Mary Holland Duke, were there to help her retrace her steps. Betty Paul and Polly Sumner Brinson, who were students at Ball's Ferry School back in 1939, were back to walk again. Betty remembered masses of people everywhere. Polly thought about her daddy, Eugene Sumner, who helped build the bridge.
Charles Paul came with his mother Betty and brought his daughter Layla along too. This time there would be three generations walking across the new bridge. Layla was glad to see her grandmother get a chance to do it again. Paul, who helped round up participants, crosses the bridge every day. "It is more than just a bridge, it is a bridge to the future," said Paul, who believes his great grandchildren will be using this bridge into the next century.
Those who gathered on the west end of the bridge were greeted by Commissioner Holder, who thanked Georgia state senators Gillis and Brown for their roles in securing the ten million dollars in state and federal funding for the new bridge. Holder also thanked the members of the Ball's Ferry Park Association, which is composed of citizens from Wilkinson, Baldwin, Washington, Johnson and Laurens counties, for their dedication in establishing a state historical park. He also thanked the D.O.T. officials and project managers for the bridge, Chris Jordan and Kevin Joiner.
The project, which is slated to begin later this year, is now being tolled while environmental studies are being conducted on the burrowing crayfish, which lives along the banks of the river. The commissioner told the crowd that the new bridge will create a change in direction and offer a better entrance into the state park.
Cecil Hodges, of Washington County, was only eight at the time of the first dedication. He remembered school children were all lined up to walk across. "Before we began, we were told not to walk in step because it may cause the bridge to wobble and collapse," Hodges fondly remembered.
Mary Alice Jordan, a leading Washington County historian, was present lending her support to the bridge and the new park. Mr. Byron McCook, at 93 years, was a grown man back in 1939 when he crossed the bridge for the first time on foot. Mr. Byron responded, "I am just glad to be here again."
Kimberly Watkins - First to cross.
Kimberly Watkins was the first to accept Commissioner's Holder's invitation to walk across the bridge. Stopping only a few times to see if she could spot a gator flopping around in the suddenly warmer waters, Hopkins was the first to make the one-third of a mile trek to the Washington County side. "I wanted to be able to tell my five-year-old son, who was fascinated by the bridge building equipment, that I was one of the first to walk across the bridge," commented Hopkins. "People don't realize the history we have in our county. You always hear about the negative parts. But, I wouldn't trade living here for anything in the world." Right behind Mrs. Watkins was Connie Etheridge, the first of the repeat walkers to make it to the other side.
The new bridge took exactly seventeen months to complete. Workers of the Rogers Bridge Company installed more than ten thousand feet of beams and placed nearly 450 tons of reinforced steel into the new bridge, which is some 37 feet longer than the old one. They poured more than four thousand cubic yards of concrete. Heavy contractors dumped and graded 140,000 cubic yards of dirt along the approaches.
Today people will continue to cross the river on the new bridge at Ball's Ferry, but on a wider and safer bridge. No longer are there any doubters about the new one, which now and forever will always be the bridge to everywhere.