"Part of the Community": Keeping Townsend's Footbridges Open

Sep 18, 2019

Credit Baylor Spears, WUOT News

The sounds of footsteps and Little River flowing make visiting the Dark Island swinging bridge in Townsend a unique experience. Three months ago, Steve Hall noticed the footsteps had fallen silent, and boards and yellow caution tape closed off the entrance to the footbridge. That worried him.

“It’s just part of the community. It’s just kind of a neat place that’s very consistent with the slowness of Townsend, the peaceful side of the Smokies,” Hall said recently.

The Dark Island Bridge and a sister span in Kinzel Springs are two remaining symbols of Townsend’s past. The bridges date back to at least the late 1960’s and it’s said there were as many as seven at one point. The two current bridges were built in 1997 by the Blount County Highway Commission to replace bridges that were swept away by floods in 1994. 

“A lot of people that have lived in Townsend through multiple generations most of them have a story of jumping off the bridge when they were young,” Hall said. “I mean, it’s illegal, but it’s somewhat of a rite of passage to the locals.” 

After the Dark Island bridge closed in late May, Hall started going to County Commission meetings, asking for the bridge to be fixed and re-opened. When a nearby road on the river’s northern bank floods - which Hall says can happen three or four times a year - the Dark Island bridge becomes residents’ only access to the south bank. And when waters recede, locals use the bridge on a daily basis.

The path is narrow, but vital, says Townsend resident Steve Hall.
Credit Baylor Spears, WUOT News

There was confusion about whose responsibility it is to maintain and repair the Dark island Bridge and its sister bridge downstream. Blount County Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick spent part of the summer looking for the answer. It’s complicated. The southern foot of the Dark Island Bridge rests on Steve Hall’s property. But who had jurisdiction over the bridges? No one was sure.

“There was some grant money that was put into the swinging bridges that was obtained by Blount County which possibly could imply that it was Blount County’s,” Headrick said this month. “It’s still unclear to me how the Highway Department was put in charge of upkeep and maintenance of the swinging bridges.”

The bridges are in County Commissioner Jeff Jopling’s district. He says he understands the challenge Headrick faced. Determining who was responsible for the bridges would not only get the spans re-opened; it would also avoid legal problems, like liability.

“Well, we want these bridges to stay,” Jopling said. “If this [was] an issue of maintenance it shouldn’t cost the county that much money to fix a few boards. Well, the issue was not with the payment for the maintenance. The issue was making sure that those property owners were not liable if somebody got hurt.”

What Headrick needed to figure out was whether or not the county had right-of-ways, or legal claim, through the property.

“Upon further digging though they found out that there were indeed rights of way that was on paper...saying it was indeed the county’s," Jopling said. "So once they found it had it in writing and all of that they went ahead and did the repair work.”

"Love locks" are already returning to the chain-link guardrails of the Dark Island swinging bridge in Townsend.
Credit Baylor Spears, WUOT News

The Dark Island bridge was repaired and reopened in late June. People are using it again and some even resurrected an old tradition.

“Those are love locks,“ Hall said, chuckling. “The high schoolers come over here and carve out their lovers initials. You know A-B plus R-X true love forever.”

But Commissioner Jeff Jopling said what is a symbol of love for some is another potential problem for the bridges: “One lock is not an issue. Ten locks is not an issue, but once you get a hundred locks or two hundred locks or something on there, it really starts becoming a problem for the weight load of the bridge.” 

More issues have arisen with the footbridge in Kinzel Springs. Highway superintendent Jeff Headrick found out previous alterations to the span could complicate repair efforts.

Headrick and local leaders say they’re committed to getting the Kinzel Springs bridge reopened, but it’s going to be at least a couple of weeks before repair work begins. Beyond that, responsibility for the upkeep in the future is still being determined. For the Dark Island bridge, Commissioner Jeff Jopling says that means a lease agreement. 

“Right now, it’s the county’s responsibility, but the highway department is working with the city of Townsend to try and work out something to where the City of Townsend leases that bridge and pays for the maintenance moving forward,” Jopling said.

The Dark Island swinging bridge crosses the Little River in Townsend.
Credit Baylor Spears, WUOT News

Headrick said that agreement will likely become public in October or early November. The Kinzel Springs Bridge will remain Blount County’s responsibility for the foreseeable future. While long-term plans are still being discussed, Steve Hall and other Townsend residents are grateful to have the Dark Island bridge open again. 

“We were so happy when at the very first of the meeting,” Hall says. “The first announcement was, ‘if you’re here to talk about the footbridge being closed, it’s a moot point. We’ve made arrangements to fix it up and open it up.’ We were thrilled really and we were very thankful.”

This story was researched and reported by WUOT News intern Baylor Spears.