The O&W Bridge will be renovated during a $94,000 project that will utilize funding from a state tourism grant. (Ben Garrett/IH)

“We all have to realize that this bridge could wind up being closed. And if it’s deemed unsafe, we may never get it back.”

Those were the words of warning, spoken during a 2015 meeting of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Committee, that got the ball rolling on a collaborative community effort to “save” the historic O&W Railroad Bridge.

The issue was not the integrity of the steel structure itself; engineering inspections had deemed the bridge’s support structure sound and safe. Rather, the issue was with the decking and fencing on the bridge. At its worst, back in 2015, there were large pieces of flooring missing — either rotted or ripped up by vandals. Pedestrians could look through the floor of the bridge and see the rushing waters of the Big South Fork River below. The holes were large enough for a horse or even an unsuspecting human to break a leg in. Complicating matters, the fencing along the side of the bridge was unstable, only partially secured, and simply leaning on it left the impression that it might give way and send you flailing to a near certain death.

In the words of Stacey Kidd, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Park Service was concerned about the bridge.

“The park superintendent (Nikki Nicholas) came to us and told us the story: the bridge was in really bad shape and was dangerous to the public,” Kidd said. “The park had great concerns about that.”

The Tourism Committee began to ponder the question: could the bridge actually be closed?

“If it gets to the point that a child could accidentally fall off the bridge, I believe we will see the bridge closed,” Brandon Hughett — a former member of the Tourism Committee — said at the time.

Wheels started to turn and ideas began to be thrown onto the table. Volunteers measured the bridge, developing a rough list of materials that would be needed to stabilize the bridge — at least enough to remove the safety concerns. Other volunteers started working on costs. Were there any lumber yards that would be willing to donate the rough-cut lumber that would be needed to replace the missing sections of flooring?

In the end, the Scott County Road Department agreed to repair the bridge. In 2016, a crew made the 30-minute drive down the O&W Road to the bridge with a load of lumber and saws in hand. While they made the necessary repairs, they uncovered an even bigger problem. Supervisor Kelvin King reported to Kidd that the wooden cross ties — normally out of sight and out of mind beneath the flooring — were rotten, and would have to be replaced.

The price tag was an enormous one. It was estimated that materials alone would cost nearly $50,000.

For the Chamber of Commerce, it was a no-brainer: the bridge had too much historic value to the local community, and was too much of a draw for tourists, to simply abandon it. But the road department, which is funded by a share of the state gasoline tax, struggles to maintain the hundreds of miles of roadways throughout Scott County — roads that actually go to homes and businesses, rather than dead-ending at a creek. And in a cash-strapped community that was struggling to fund what was already on its plate without raising property taxes, asking county government to foot the bill seemed futile.

“We knew the bridge was a huge draw for our tourism and visitors, as well as locals,” Kidd said. “It has so much history.”

In a nutshell, the O&W Bridge is one of the few of its kind remaining in the U.S. It is a whipple-style steel bridge that was originally constructed in the late 19th century. It was later dismantled and, between 1913 and 1915, reassembled to bridge the Big South Fork River along the Oneida & Western Railroad.

For the next 30 years, the O&W Bridge served the trains that hauled timber and coal from the expansive land reserves beyond the river. After the natural resources played out and the railroad was abandoned, the O&W became a recreation fixture.

In the 1990s, the National Park Service had drawn up plans to close the O&W Road just east of the bridge, using the bridge itself as a pedestrian and equestrian route to the far side of the river. But Scott County Commission lobbied to keep the bridge open, arguing that the county owned the road right of way and the bridge. In an agreement signed during the tenure of then-county executive Dwight Murphy, the federal government conceded the county’s ownership to White Oak Creek nearly two miles west of the bridge. The road was left open to that point, while the remainder of the rail bed from the creek crossing into Fentress County was closed to motor vehicles and transformed into a multi-purpose trail for horseback riders and hikers.

On a typical summer weekend today, the O&W Bridge is a popular recreation area for scores of visitors — both from Scott County and beyond. Many usage groups are represented: Kayakers, hikers, horseback riders, swimmers, campers, anglers and just sightseers. Hikers use the bridge as part of the John Muir Trail and the Sheltowee National Recreation Trail. Equestrian riders use the trail to access the trails on the west side of the river that link up to the Cumberland Valley Trailhead and Bandy Creek. The cold pools of water along White Oak Creek are popular local swimming holes. And the O&W Road is the only road within the boundaries of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area where ATV usage is allowed.

“We just knew we had to find a way to fix this bridge,” Kidd said.

As it turned out, there was a tourism grant available from the State of Tennessee. It was for up to $50,000. And it seemed to be tailor-made for Scott County.

“We saw that TDOT was one of the agencies doing the scoring (to determine eligibility), and our need was a transportation project. It had to be historical. It had to be county-owned. It had to be a draw for tourism. Every factor that was asked was a perfect fit,” Kidd said.

Kidd and King met again. The news was good: the road department would provide the labor — estimated at $45,000 — if the grant covered the cost of materials.

Still, there were obstacles to clear. For one, the grant was for reimbursement funding — meaning the initial funds had to be provided by a local entity, which would later be reimbursed by the state. For another, there was a required match of just over $3,000.

As it turned out, both hurdles were easy enough to clear. The Industrial Development Board of Scott County agreed to facilitate the grant. And an anonymous donor pledged the match money.

“Because it was such a good project for tourism and economic development, and because it meant so much to our community, the IDB was willing to be the conduit for the grant and facilitate it until the state reimburses them,” Kidd said. “And the anonymous donor was a group that we knew had an interest in seeing tourism and economic growth in the community. They didn’t even hesitate. They wrote us a check before we even knew we had the grant. All they asked was that their name not be attached to it.”

The end result? A $97,000 project that will see the O&W Bridge fully restored and its life extended by decades, and it is not costing the county’s property owners “one penny in taxes,” as Kidd puts it.

And, she adds, “We aren’t just gonna go in and halfway do it. It’s going to be done right.”

The end solution, Kidd said, is a result of collaboration between many stakeholders who have an interest in Scott County: the National Park Service, the county road department, the Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Board.

“The park service came up and presented a problem, we went to Kelvin King, and he told us what they could do and couldn’t do,” Kidd said. “Then our other partner came in with the match money. This is what teamwork does. When we work together as a team, we accomplish a lot.”

This is the February 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," which is presented in the Independent Herald by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the newspaper's Back Page Features series.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.