One of the most impressive construction projects in the history of Jackson County was completed at Neal’s Landing on the Chattahoochee River in 1927. Those who experienced this famed and feared “Swinging Bridge” never forgot it!
The story of Neal’s Landing is actually older than Jackson County itself. The Creek Indian village of Ekanachatte (“Red Ground”) stood here during the 18th century and a crossing at the site was shown on a British map dating from the American Revolution. The village was burned by U.S. Creek forces during the First Seminole War of 1817-1818 and the first American settlers moved in to occupy the abandoned fields less than one year later.
A ferry operated at the site from the earliest days of Florida’s Territorial era and then Neal’s Landing became a landing for paddlewheel steamboats after they appeared on the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in 1826. Over the next 100 years, more than 200 paddlewheel boats operated on the river. They carried people and cargo up to Columbus or down to Apalachicola. So much commerce was moved through Neal’s Landing that Jackson County built a public road to connect it to Marianna by way of Bascom and Greenwood.
The arrival of the railroads in Jackson County during the late 19th century followed by the development of cars, trucks and improved roads in the early 20th spelled the end of riverboat traffic on the Chattahoochee, Apalachicola and Flint. The sinking of the John W. Callahan in 1923 really marked the end of the grand old riverboats, although the smaller Callahan Jr. continued to run for a few years longer.
The commercial activity had dwindled at Neal’s Landing by this time. Mr. and Mrs. M.V. Patrick purchased the site from Sarah Baker and Sen. William Hall Milton in 1919. They still handled occasional boat stops but focused more on farming and ranching. A dangerous ferry carried automobiles, trucks, buggies and wagons across the river, with at least one passage ending in a capsized flat and two drowned passengers.
The need for more efficient and safer ways of moving automobiles and trucks across the river was evident as there was no bridge connecting Jackson County, Florida, with Seminole County, Georgia. No one really knew what to do.
In the winter of 1925-1926, however, a Donalsonville man named J.L. Haralson was inspired by a dream of building a massive suspension bridge to carry traffic across the Chattahoochee River. He was the cashier of the Planters Bank of Donalsonville, Southwest Georgia and West Florida.
Mr. Haralson was more than just a dreamer. He was a doer. He began to push the idea with political and business leaders and a groundswell of support grew for the project. The Austin Brothers Bridge Company of Atlanta took interest and announced their decision to build the span on February 3, 1926:
George L. Austin, and his brother, of Texas, visited Donalsonville recently and with Mr. Haralson went over every detail and Mr. Haralson was assured that the bridge would be built, the work to commence just as soon as plans and specifications could be made and the materials placed on the ground. [Macon Telegraph, February 4, 1926]
The speed with which state and federal agencies approved the project is stunning when compared to today’s permitting nightmares. The Austin brothers formed a subsidiary called the Georgia-Florida Bridge Company and announced plans to build the bridge and then use tolls to reimburse themselves for the cost.
The Chattahoochee is a federal waterway so final approval was needed from Congress. The U.S. Senate approved its version of a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on June 3, 1926. Only five months had passed since the first visit of the bridge builders to the site! President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill and work began almost immediately.
Representatives of the Georgia-Florida Bridge Company approached Mr. and Mrs. Patrick and received from them an easement allowing the construction of the Jackson County end of the bridge. They signed the easement on September 30, 1926, asking for and receiving only $1 in return. They also received a promise of free use of the structure for themselves, their children and their employees for life.
The soaring suspension bridge was built in just one year, a remarkable feat in any age but especially in 1927 when much of the work was done by hand.
It was stunning in terms of both the remarkable height and narrow width of the roadway that it supported. The floor was made of wooden plank and would rise and fall as cars made their way across. Adding to the fear factor even more, the floor of the bridge would sway with the wind. Cars could be moving forward while rising and falling and moving side to side all at the same time!
The structure definitely earned the nickname of “the Swinging Bridge.”
It remained in use until 1953 when engineers noticed that the foundations of the massive support towers were sinking. The “swinging bridge” was condemned and dismantled. A ferry was used to move traffic across the river while the bridge still in use today was built on the same site.
Time-faded photographs and the memories of travelers are all that remain of the Neal’s Landing Swinging Bridge.