A bright, sunny Wednesday afternoon in November 2019 was appropriate to celebrate the dedication of a new Townsend landmark: the “Townsend/Sunshine” bridge with city leaders, businessmen from Knoxville and residents alike.
It’s a new icon that’s been decades in the making.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony, it was officially dubbed the “Townsend/Sunshine” bridge and the clear, autumn weather seemed to approve of the name.
Formerly known as simply “the covered bridge,” — because that’s exactly what it was in concept — the pedestrian walkway over Little River at the edge of town is now an homage to both the city’s past and its future.
In years past, Townsend was populated primarily, not by the thousands of Great Smoky Mountain National Park tourists that drive through it every day, but by loggers who used swinging bridges to keep pace with their trade.
More recently, the town used to have seven of these bridges remaining, more a memory of the past than a practical necessity. Now, with only two swinging bridges remaining, the covered bridge is meant to stand as both a monument to the past and a harbinger of the town’s future.
“Something that a lot of people thought 20 years ago wouldn’t happen has come to fruition,” Richard Maples said to a crowd of more than 100 people gathered to celebrate the bridge’s opening.
‘Drawn 30 times’
Maples is a businessman from Knoxville and has been heavily involved in planning, designing, strategizing and fundraising for the project.
He may have been at the head of efforts, but during the dedication, he was quick to thank those who came together to turn the bridge from a dream into a reality.
Whether that was architect Andy Morton — who Maples joked had “drawn the bridge about 30 times,” — or Blount County Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick, who Maples and others said played a significant part in helping get the job done right, the project was lauded as a community effort.
But at least one member of the team who envisioned the bridge was not present: Jim Hinds.
Hinds passed away in 2017 and before Maples cut the ribbon with other officials, he led Hinds’ widow, Susan, to a plaque covered in black plastic.
Maples tore the plastic away, tears in his eyes, to reveal the words “In memory of Jim Hinds, 1932-2017.”
Standing beside Maples with tears of her own during the ceremony, Susan Hinds said, “Jim is smiling today.”
A history, a futureThe structure on which the covered bridge is built used to be a road. It was probably built sometime in 1912 or 1913, according to Maples, and it’s been threatened repeatedly with demolition.
Slated to cost anywhere from $250,000 to $300,000, the project seemed insurmountable for many years as minds like Morton’s, Maples’, Hinds’ and local builder Delmar Caylor’s pored over exactly how to put it together and how to convince the right authorities it was sound enough to build on.
But in 2018, the county voted to allocate $175,000 to repair the bridge. That, along with cooperation and generosity, paved the way to the ribbon-cutting.
The community was invested, too.
Caylor’s Townsend business, Caylor Brother’s Construction, built the bridge and Caylor’s daughter, Debbie Johnson, said in an email to The Daily Times that the bridge was her father’s legacy, too.
“Daddy has always loved the mountains, so this is so important to him,” Johnson said. “(T)his bridge is his legacy, not because it can be seen but because it is a part of history. ... It is the only job he has ever asked me to go look at because it means so much to him.”
Caylor’s pride was reflected in many attendees at the event.
“I’ll tell you, if Richard Maples says he’s going to do something, just get out of the way,” Congressman Tim Burchett said to the gathered crowd near the end of the ceremony. He and other politicians and prominent businessmen, including state Sen. Art Swann, Rep. Jerome Moon and Clayton Homes CEO Kevin Clayton, were in attendance.
The project is a landmark for Townsend and many agreed it was a symbol of the town’s status as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” a quiet but vibrant community separate from the hubbub of Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg.
“Townsend,” reflected Headrick after the ceremony. “A lot of good folks. That relationship that we have, Blount County and Townsend, the two governments working together, the swinging bridges, the mural. ... We worked hard on it. One without the other, it couldn’t have been done.”
Maples ended the 2019 ceremony by saying he expected the bridge to last at least 150 years.
In the months following the bridge’s opening, lights were installed and a small parking lot was carved out beside the structure. Today, the city manages the bridge and is responsible for its upkeep.
In less than a year, it’s been used night and day for exactly what its architects hoped: walking, biking, fishing and reflecting on the city’s rich heritage.