The Great Lost Brushy Creek Trestle

In the annals of railroading history, there have been a great many imposing structures built to carry the rails across valleys, waterways, or roads. Viaducts, trestles, bridges – whatever variety or construction, the awe-inspiring mountains of metal (or wood, even) have supported many decades of history, and provided railroad and architecture enthusiasts with a magnificent spectacle to marvel upon.

As the industrial age gave way to more modern times, so too did the classic days of railroading evolve. With the passage of time, many of these grand architectural landmarks became derelict, and even those in use began to fall into some level of disrepair. A great many have been scrapped, many more are abandoned and rusting away on some forgotten rail line in the middle of nowhere, and a handful of survivors hang on with intensive maintenance, still used to carry freight or passengers as they did many decades ago. Those that remain are quite an impressive sight, especially those which are still in service; there are few things more impressive than watching a freight train cross a classic historic viaduct.

Sadly, even those that have survived into relatively modern times have suffered significantly – even those that are protected or maintained. Perhaps most poignantly, the great Kinzua Viaduct in Pennsylvania, spanning nearly a half mile over Kinzua Creek 300 feet below, was devastated by a 2003 tornado that brought down more than half its great spans. Still many others have been torn down due to liability, negligence, or for being largely obsolete for their original purpose.

Such a fate befell the great Brushy Creek Trestle in October 1996. Though mostly forgotten and hardly a reference is to be found, memories of the imposing trestle are still very much alive to long-time residents. Trips to see the viaduct were apparently rather common, and many recall walking on the trestle, staring at the creek 187 feet below.

Brushy Creek is a narrow, winding waterway located roughly halfway between Hackleburg and Haleyville in Marion County, Alabama. This region, at the southern tip of the Appalachians, has a long rail history dating back well into the 19th century. In 1901, Illinois Central began to scout for a location to construct a line to Birmingham, AL. Investigation of the terrain and the existing routes revealed that the most efficient location for this new line would be through this area, between Jackson, TN, and Jasper, AL. After a brief setback, trackage rights from Haleyville to Birmingham were acquired to connect the incipient line to its goal, and construction began. It was noted that Brushy Creek, and the deep gorge it carved into the landscape, would require the railroad to either route around or build a viaduct to allow trains to cross the obstacle. After a thorough study, the latter option prevailed.

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The construction detail of the bridge, taken from an old Railroad Gazette article (viewable in Google Books) reads thus:

Total length, face to face of parapets: 1,230ft 7 1/4 in
Maximum height, base of rail to masonry: 171ft 2in
Total weight of structure: 1,943 tons
Total amount of masonry: 1,550 yds

“Ten 75-foot plate girder spans, nine towers with 40-foot deck plate girders, and two 60-foot deck plate girder approaches. The 60-foot approach spans rest on concrete abutments and rocker bents. The towers and rocker bents rest on masonry piers on solid rock foundations. The tops of the piers are all 5 ft 6 in square, varying from 6 to 24 ft in depth, according to conditions. The masonry piers are all stepped on the outside to permit future extensions to the masonry for a second track. The tower spans are fixed at both ends on the columns and the 75-ft spans on each side are alternately loose and fixed at the ends. The towers themselves are fixed at diagonally opposite corners of the bases, expansion being provided for at the other corners. Each of the towers consists of four columns joined by diagonal braces of channels. Each column is made up of two plates and four angles. Two angles are riveted to each plate, the two plates being spaced 21 1/4 in. and laced with 3-in. x 3/8(?) in. angles. The towers are built in one, two, or three sections, according to height. The top sections, the middle sections, and the base sections, respectively, for all towers, are built of similar elements. The steel for the viaduct was furnished by the McClintic-Marshall Construction Co., Pittsburgh, Pa. It was erected by the Strobel Steel Construction Co., Chicago, with a double trolley traveller, as shown in one of the photographs herewith. The total time from beginning the work of erection until trains were allowed to cross the viaduct was 40 days.”

The trestle went into service in early 1908. The route on which the trestle was built was the major carrier of rail traffic between Haleyville, AL and Corinth, MS. The line also carried passenger trains, primarily travelers from Miami to Chicago – most famously, Illinois Central’s legendary City of Miami streamliner crossed the bridge, undoubtedly offering a breathtaking view from high above as it raced across. In addition, a one-coach train known as the Doodle Bug shuttled passengers between Hackleburg and nearby towns, offering an inexpensive and useful method of transportation for locals. It was certainly a bustling center of activity for a good while in rural northern Marion county.

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The trestle quickly piqued the interest of local residents, and held it for generations. A handful of legends and stories surrounded the viaduct. Most notable, perhaps, is the story of one Rube Burr, an outlaw that is said to have robbed trains going through the area, presumably as they slowed in order to safely cross the viaduct. A cave near the trestle is said to have been his hideout. Whether this is local legend or fact is not certain, but records note that the outlaw probably died before the trestle was constructed. Adding to the mystique that the structure developed, three people are known to have died on the bridge – two during the construction, and another man whilst painting the trestle in 1939.

Looking across viaduct in 1983

1983 view across bridge; courtesy of Bernie Feltman

The Doodle Bug ran its last in 1941, and passenger service was discontinued altogether on May 2, 1971, when Illinois Central ended passenger service at the dawn of Amtrak. The route was relegated to carrying freight only for the next two decades. The aging trestle stood firmly and quietly in its heavily forested ravine through the 1970s and early 1980s, showing its age more and more with each passing year as the massive structure rusted in the damp Alabama backwoods. Freight traffic still passed over it, though not as heavily as before. However, change was rapidly approaching. In 1988, Norfolk Southern purchased 377 miles of lines from Illinois Central as the railroad sold off a massive swath of east-west lines, including the portion that contained the Brushy Creek Trestle. Norfolk Southern never actually used this part of the line, citing lack of profit, and the last train crossed the viaduct sometime in 1988. The viaduct was in limbo, of sorts, until 1992, when Norfolk Southern successfully petitioned for the right to permanently abandon this section of railway, along which the viaduct was located.

Brushy Creek Viaduct

1983 view; courtesy of Bernie Feltman

The viaduct, a massive rusting relic of a lost age, was left standing, prompting at least one local historical society to consider purchasing the neglected structure as an important piece of Marion County and southern railroading’s history. However, tragedy struck on September 14th 1993. 14-year-old Eric Ricketts was trespassing on the viaduct with a friend, riding an ATV. At one point along the bridge the ATV became stuck, and in the process of dislodging it he fell off the bridge, 160 feet to the valley below. Remarkably, he survived, but suffered serious and debilitating injuries. Naturally, the father sued the railroad, culminating in a two-year court situation.

This incident was a heavy determining factor into the then-obvious yet unfortunate conclusion that the derelict bridge was a liability, and with the closure of the line, there was no safe reason for the structure to remain standing, despite its historical significance. In late 1996, the Brushy Creek Viaduct was torn down, taking with it nearly a century of memories and railroad history.

Today the site is home to a young second growth forest, and it seems as though the area is now hardly discernible as having been part of a rail line. A diffuse ridge where the track for the line once laid is faintly visible on aerial imagery of the area, but virtually all traces of the railway are already gone. The earliest Google Earth shot available, from 1999, shows the remnants of the foundation and a heavily disturbed area surrounding the bridge, where material and machinery were hauled in and out. More recently, fewer and fewer artifacts remain, and it seems as though nature will soon fully reclaim the creek bed where the Brushy Creek Trestle stood for 89 years.

Date nail

Date nail in cross tie, 1983; courtesy Bernie Feltman

While the demise of this historic viaduct is disheartening, it should serve as a stark reminder that we need to work to preserve the structures we have left while remaining mindful of the bridges lost to time and apathy. The Brushy Creek trestle should have been preserved, it could be argued, and perhaps restored as a part of local history, but extensive efforts to prevent trespassing, vandalism, and other issues regarding liability would have required enacting – a task that was not organised quickly enough to save the engineering masterpiece. But there’s little use dwelling too heavily on a trestle gone for 17 years when there are equally historic bridges at risk of demolition at this very moment. It’s a tough road ahead, but a road we should travel in order to document and protect the last vestiges of America’s past as told by these historic structures.

The above is an essay I wrote for BridgeHunter.com.

Poking through old newspaper and book archives on Google, I found multiple articles about the trestle, along with multiple photographs. These are posted below.

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

Railroad Gazette, 1908

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

The Railway Age, 1907

Article on the demolition

Accident that led to lawsuit

Accident that led to lawsuit

References:

Times-Daily, Oct 21 1996 “It’s History” – Article on the demolition of the viaduct

Court Case – Details of the 1995 court case regarding the teenager that fell off the trestle

Extensive construction notes and photograph – Google Books link

More extensive details – Google Books link

Message board discussion – Mention of viaduct in group discussion

Bernie Feltman