History of Alapaha River Bridges, US 41 to Nobles Ferry –Ken Sulak 2021-12-08

Dr. Ken Sulak, USGS, Retired, sent us some things to look for as we paddle the last stretch of the Alapaha River on February 5, 2022.

[Pictures and Maps, Lower Alapaha River Bridges]
Pictures and Maps, Lower Alapaha River Bridges

For your upcoming [5] Feb Alapaha adventure, some of your folks might be interested in the history of three crossing sites you will encounter. So, here you go very briefly:

[US 41 bridge from access]
US 41 bridge from access

Davenport’s Ferry @ US 41

Right where your [5] Feb Alapaha River paddle will begin at the US 41 bridge, there is a lot of preceding history. Back in the early 1800s, it was the site of Davenport’s Ferry. I have scant information on Davenport or his ferry. It was never licensed that I can determine, but was subsequently taken over by Henry Peeples Nunn in the 1870s, and became known as Nunn’s Ferry. Nunn is buried in the Jennings Bluff Cemetery.

In 1885, Nunn and Jeremiah Gill obtained a state license to construct a toll bridge to replace the ferry crossing. It was a steel truss bridge of a very early design, an arched bowstring bridge. Only two such bridges were built in Florida, the other over the Withlacoochee near Lee (close to Suwannee River State Park). It probably had two spans to cross the long distance from shore to shore. Being built before the invention of steel Lally columns, the two spans probably rested upon brick and/or concrete piers. This may be the earliest steel truss bridge built in Florida, or at least one of the first few. Supposedly, there are remnants of the piers in the riverbank, but I have not found them. This was a light-duty wood plank deck bridge with only a single brace over top to connect the two sides.

[US 41 Bridge]
US 41 Bridge, in the WWALS map of the Alapaha River Water Trail.

Nunn’s single lane bridge was replaced in 1921 by a heavy-duty, dual-lane, steel truss bridge, with a concrete deck. The design was similar to the Ed Scott bridge built on the east side of White Springs in 1923. Like its predecessor, the new US 41 bridge over the Alapaha was also a two-span bridge.

Steel through strut bridges fell out of favor by about 1950-1960, and were replaced by modern I-beam & stressed concrete open deck bridges. Tall trucks kept hitting the overhead cross-members. The Alapaha River bridge lasted longer than most, being replaced by a modern span in 1988.

Here’s the current US 41 Alapaha River Bridge, at river mile 11.5.

[U.S. 41 Bridge, 2019-02-09]
U.S. 41 Bridge, 2019-02-09. Photo: Gretchen Quarterman.

Bridgereports.com says the current bridge is a 400-foot Concrete Cast-in-Place deck on five Prestressed concrete Stringer/Multi-beam or girders.

I-75 Bridges

Ken didn’t mention the I-75 double bridges at river mile 8.24, presumably because there’s no history of them before the Interstate highway.

[I 75 bridges]
I-75 Bridges. Photo: Bobby McKenzie, 2021-05-07.

Back to Ken:

Old CR 387 Bridge

There were no other crossings over the Alapaha until about 9.5 miles down the river along your intended 12-mile paddle. At 9.5 miles, old CR 387 bridge crossed the river two miles upstream of Nobles Ferry. It was a single-lane, single-span steel truss bridge, built after 1911.

[Old CR 387 Bridge]
Old CR 387 Bridge in the WWALS map of the Alapaha River Water Trail.

I have pieced together its probable origin and history. At the site, toppled brick and concrete abutments remain atop the riverbank. There are lots of really super photos of the standing bridge on the Florida Archive site, but they are all misidentified as the US 41 bridge.

Brick piers were unusual for that time period, when almost all steel bridges were erected upon steel Lally columns. But this was no ordinary highway bridge.

In 1910-1911, the Florida Railway surveyed, grubbed and graded a rail line that would have run from Quitman, GA to Live Oak, FL. The bed of this line is nicely shown on New Sectional Map of Florida for 1911. It was to cross the Alapaha right where the CR 387 bridge later stood, and to cross the Suwannee some miles further near Holton Creek. I have investigated both sites.

The US Army Corps of Engineers Suwannee River survey of Nov 1911 noted the Suwannee bridge, annotation suggesting it was demolished. When a rail line was being built, the trestles were erected first, then track laid to and across them. A trestle was indeed built on the intended route, because I have found cleats, bolts, spikes and RR tools in the riverbed at the Holton Site. Several tall vertical pilings still remain in place, from when it was abandoned and the rails removed. The Alapaha RR crossing apparently did not get that far along. But with the cleared grade in place to serve as a highway, and concrete/brick abutments in place on the river banks, a highway bridge was built at the site.

It remained in place until 1981 or maybe 1985, then was replaced a bit further downstream by the existing CR 751 modern open deck I-beam and concrete stringer bridge.

CR 751 Bridge

The CR 751 Bridge is at river mile 1.20.

[CR 751 bridge]
CR 751 bridge. Photo: Bobby McKenzie 2021-05-07.

Back to Ken:

Nobles Ferry @ Alapaha River Confluence with the Suwannee River

Final crossing point of interest is at the very end of the Alapaha where it joins the Suwannee. In 1842, Soloman Zipperer and John Martin Zipperer Jr. got a license to operate a ferry across the Suwannee River at what is now called Nobles Ferry (Gibson Park). The Zipperers were immigrants from Germany (perhaps Austria) and obtained several land patents in the Nobles Ferry area along the river.

Soloman died in 1864, I am guessing in the Civil War because in 1860 his sister Elizabeth (‘Hester’) Zipperer and William J. J. Duncan obtained a license to build a toll bridge to replace the ferry.

Eventually, the toll bridge collapsed and was replaced in 1880 by a new ferry at the same site, operated I think by William P. Nobles, a resident of Live Oak.

That ferry ran until 1912 when it was replaced by the old steel truss, single lane Nobles Ferry Bridge. It collapsed under the weight of an illegally-crossing turpentine truck in 1968, and was not replaced by the existing open deck bridge until 1984.

The approach road to the ferry landing winds down the south (east) bank and is still evident. Atop the bank is a large oak with a ring scar where the ferry cable was moored. The ferry crossed the Suwannee, landing on either side of the mouth of the Alapaha (east actually landing up into the Alapaha). There were roads down from both sides.

Much of the collapsed old Nobles Ferry Bridge remains on the north (west) river bank and down into the river, including the fallen Lally columns, and lots of pieces of concrete piers and the banktop abutment.

[Gibson Park Boat Ramp]
Gibson Park Boat Ramp. Photo: Bobby McKenzie 2021-05-07.

Postscript by Ken:

What I wrote tonight if basically all probably true, or close to true. But Florida early settler history and railroad history is a sketchy thing, often very poorly documented. The only way I know that there was a Davenport’s Ferry is that it is mentioned in the Florida Acts in which a license was issued to Mr. Nunn “at the site of old Davenport Ferry”. So, you should attribute what was written to me, not for ego purposes. At 75, I do not care about that, but so that someone who knows otherwise might send along information or a correction or an old photo, or a family story. That happens fairly frequently. A lot of knowledge resides out there in people’s heads, and old family scrapbooks, photo albums, and stories passed down from grandma.

Thanks, Ken!

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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