Former Slave Turned Bridge Builder

Former Slave Turned Bridge Builder

RE: HORACE KING by Bill Osinski
Atlanta Journal Constitution
Sunday, December 7, 1997, p. F3
(reprinted for the TCHS Webpage with permission of the author.)

His name was Horace King. He was a slave for half his life, and he earned a place in history for the legacy of more than 100 covered bridges he built throughout Georgia and neighboring states.

And even if he'd never built a single bridge, he should be remembered for the way he rose above the hatreds of his times and displayed kindness to those who'd held him in bondage.

Although King's story was mostly forgotten until about a century after he died in 1885, his life is now the subject of a documentary film by Tom Lenard of Auburn University in Alabama.

King's unmarked grave was discovered in LaGrange in 1978; now it is marked by a granite headstone erected by the Troup County Historical Society and inscribed "Horace King, Master Covered Bridge Builder." There is a street named for him in LaGrange, and there is a historical marker telling about King.

"We just wish that more people knew his story," said Kaye Minchew, director of the Troup County Archives. "It's much more than a rags to riches story. History shouldn't forget somebody like Horace King."

Lenard said there are plans to have a special screening of his documentary in February, 1998, at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, an event to which descendants of King would be invited. To him, the King story shows "there's a lot of genius in man- if it only has an opportunity to come forward."

King's story begins in 1807 in South Carolina, where he was born a slave; his ethnic heritage was a mixture of African-American, Native American and white. His second owner was John Godwin, an entrepreneur who studied bridge building with some of the leading New England experts of the times.

In the 1830s, Godwin moved to West Georgia, where bridge builders were needed, especially to help open up the Chattahoochee Valley region. Though King was technically Godwin's "property," in reality, King functioned more as Godwin's junior partner.

Together, they built the first bridge across the Chattahoochee connecting Columbus with Phenix City, Alabama (then known as Girard). The 560-foot-long covered bridge was crucial to the development of the region.

In the early 1840s, a catastrophic flood washed he bridge down the river. Columbus officials were anxious to get a new bridge, so they awarded the contract to Godwin, who had given them the highest bid but the earliest completion date.

King was credited by historians with making the project successful. He salvaged pieces of the old bridge and helped build the new one before the deadline.

It was this kind of cooperation that led Godwin to give King his legal freedom in 1846. The Alabama Legislature, likely influenced by an important legislator who was a business associate of Godwin and King, passed a bill making King's freedom official.

It is also likely that Godwin's failing finances and ill health contributed to the timing of his decision to make King a free man. Godwin wanted to ensure that King could not be considered part of his estate that could be claimed by creditors.

Godwin died in 1849, setting the stage for a remarkable tribute from King. Over Godwin's grave in Phenix City, King erected an ornate headstone, for which he paid as much as $1,000, an incredible sum in those times. The inscription on the headstone reads, "This stone was placed here by Horace King in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his friend and former master."

As a newly independent businessman, King moved about the South building covered bridges in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. He also built homes, commercial buildings, a state hospital in Alabama, and a three-story textile mill that still stands near Columbus.

He also is credited with building the magnificent self-supported wooden staircase that is still one of the most outstanding features of the Alabama Capitol building.

But it is his bridges that seem to have captured people's hearts, There was a sign on the covered bridge across the Chattahoochee at Columbus warning that anyone traveling faster than walking speed would be subject to a $10 fine. [One of the family's bridges (his sons were also builders) was Glass' Bridge between LaGrange and West Point.] When that bridge was deliberately burned down in 1954-it had been built so well that fire was the only efficient means of demolition-some people openly wept.

Of the several bridges King built in Georgia, only one remains in use today. It's in Meriwether County, southwest of metro Atlanta.

King was "highly respected and quite literate," said Thomas French, the Columbus-based author of "Covered Bridges of Georgia" who has studied King's work extensively.

After the Civil War, King served four years in the Alabama State Legislature, then moved to to LaGrange, Georgia, in the early 1870s. There, he set up his four sons in a construction company that built private homes, downtown commercial buildings and part of a school for black children.

In his later years, King enjoyed raising and riding fine horses. He was often seen walking about town wearing a velvet-lapeled jacket.

When he died, his funeral procession went around what is now LaFayette Square, the center of LaGrange. Business stopped, and blacks and whites alike came out to pay their respects. In his obituary in the local newspaper, it was noted that King had "risen to prominence by force of genius and power."

[For more information on the King documentary, call 334-844-9362.]