The Suspension Bridge (1850)

by Allen Forkum.

Since settlers first arrived in 1779, there has been a need for residents to cross the Cumberland River at Nashville. Boats and ferries were the primary means until Nashville’s first bridge was completed in 1823. But within years, this covered toll bridge became an impediment to steamboat traffic, and petitions were made to the state for a second bridge.

View of Cumberland River, looking north, with view of the Woodland Street suspension bridge and railroad bridge in the distance. (from TSLA photograph collection)

In December 1845 the state legislature authorized the Broad Street Bridge Company to “erect a suspension bridge, of sufficient height as to not obstruct the navigation of the Cumberland” located “at or near the junction of Broad and Water streets” (today’s Riverfront Park). The public act dictated toll rates, e.g., “Footmen free; Man and horse, 5 cents. . . ; For any four wheel two horse pleasure carriage, 25 cents,” etc. Charter company members included Felix K. Zollicoffer (1812–1862) and John Shelby (1785–1859), who owned land across the river in the community that would become known as Edgefield. After the location of the bridge was fixed (changed from Broad Street to the Public Square), contractor M.D. Field hired Nashville architect Adolphus Heiman (1809–1862) to design the bridge. Heiman’s work was lauded, but he would resign from the project over disagreements with Field about the bridge’s construction. By August 1850 the “wire suspension bridge” had “hundreds of wagons and other vehicles pass over daily.” The toll bridge officially opened on September 23. It was 663 three feet in length and 110 feet above the low-water mark. One historian said the “magnificent structure . . . gave an impetus to the growth of Edgefield, making desirable a large body of land which was not so well reached by the old bridge.” The old covered bridge was removed in 1851.

On June 16, 1855, disaster struck at the suspension bridge when a portion of the roadway collapsed, sending a carriage and several people plummeting into the river; two people were killed. Newspaper accounts attributed the accident to brittle wood being used to replace the old wood flooring.

On February 18, 1862, despite “urgent appeals” by citizens, retreating Confederate military authorities ordered that the suspension cables be cut to impede advancing Federal troops. John B. Lindsley (1822–1897) witnessed the destruction of the bridge, writing in his diary that he had never seen a “more strikingly beautiful scene . . .the Wire Bridge was a line or flooring of fire.” The railroad bridge was also burned. Federal military authorities formally took possession of the city on February 25.

The suspension bridge was rebuilt in 1866 and reopened again as a toll bridge. But by the 1870s some citizens, particularly those on the Edgefield side of the river, were expressing the desire for a free bridge. In 1882 the city and county jointly purchased the suspension bridge from the Broad Street Bridge Company and reopened it for public use without a toll. Just two years later, however, the bridge was deemed unsafe by engineers and closed. It was agreed that a new bridge would be erected, but to the chagrin of many Edgefield residents, a pay ferry and a toll pontoon bridge had to be used in the meantime. The new bridge, featuring new piers and iron truss spans with two roadways, opened in 1886. Today the Woodland Street Bridge, opened in 1966, crosses the Cumberland River at the same location as the original 1850 suspension bridge.

Sources, abridged:

Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements (2012), by Paul Clements, page 131.

Nashville Whig, June 11, 1823, “Nashville Bridge.”

Tennessee Legislative Petitions, Record Group 62 card catalog, bridge petitions.

Tennessee Legislative Petitions, 194-1831-1A and 194-1831-1B, petition by Nashville Bridge Company against a second bridge.

Public Acts of Tennessee, 1845-46, Chapter XXVI, pages 71 to 74, authorization of the suspension bridge.

A. Heiman to John Meigs, Dec. 28, 1857, Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-100) Box 7, H-62, copy of resignation letter.

A. Heiman to John Meigs, Dec. 28, 1857, Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-100) Box 7, H-63, copy of report to Directors of the Suspension Bridge

Nashville Union, April 18, 1849, “Suspension Bridge.”

Daily (Centre-State) American, August 17, 1850, “The Wire Suspension Bridge…”

History of Davidson County, Tennessee (1880) by W.W. Clayton, pages 308–309, 348.

Daily American, November 13, 1851, “The work of removing the Bridge…”

Nashville Union & American, June 17, 1855, “Terrible Casualty.”

Republican Banner, June 17, 1855, “Unfortunate Accident at the Suspension Bridge.”

Republican Banner, June 19, 1855, “The Bridge Casualty.”

“The Great Panic by an Eye-witness” (1862) booklet

Lindsley, John B., diary, February 20, 1862, “By this time (3 to 4 A.M.) the suspension and railroad bridges were all in flames.”

Republican Banner, April 21, 1866, “The Suspension Bridge over the Cumberland river, connecting Nashville with the pleasant suburb of Edgefield, will be completed in a few weeks.”

Republican Banner, September 23, 1870, “To The Editor” from “Stockholders” regarding “free passage”

Daily American, January 12, 1882, “The Suspension Bridge—The Resolution Proposing Its Condemnation for a Free Bridge.”

Daily American, September 11, 1884, “The New Bridge.”

Daily American, April 18, 1886, “Crossing The River—History of Bridges Across the Cumberland at Nashville.”

Nashville Banner, October 22, 1966, “Man Survives 90-Foot Fall Off Bridge.”

“Nashville Bridges Across the Cumberland River,” by Debie Cox, online at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: