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The Natchez Trace Parkway at Highway 96 West

NTP Bridge aerial

Just southwest of Nashville, Tennessee, lies the Northern Terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. And about 8.7 miles down the Trace, where it crosses Highway 96 West, sits this amazing structure. This intersection also happens to be the first exit after you enter the 444-mile-long Parkway.

Here we are looking East toward Franklin, Tennessee; Google Maps shows a nice picture of it. And as one indication of the magnificent scenery here, the view from the bridge won me a Car and Driver "10 Best Straightaways Contest Winner" sweatshirt and some ink in the January, 2000 issue.

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This was a bridge from the original Natchez Trace, built in 1801; it collapsed in 1976. At just 18 feet tall, it's quite a contrast to today's works. Andrew Jackson crossed this bridge; Jimmy Buffett once owned this property, then sold it to Kim Carnes in the 1990s.

The history of the Natchez Trace is quite significant; it predates Columbus' arrival in America by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians pioneered its path; later it was the first federal highway in America, and was frequently called "The Government Road."

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This marker, in front of our family homestead, was first placed while Titanic was at sea. It has survived being knocked down twice, but is now set at a safer location.

The road was widened by the United States government primarily for merchants' returns from Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, back to Nashville after floating their goods down the Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers. Construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway was started on May 18, 1938, during the Great Depression, but the Parkway was not finished until 2005.

We're looking West now, and the bridge is 165 feet tall, 1,648 feet long, and about 37 feet wide. The cement and steel roadbed retaining wall is low to provide an amazing view... almost uncomfortably low. I seriously think that if you were in a large truck, RV, or on a motorcycle and hit the side, you could easily go on over.

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If you're looking at the bridge and thinking, "Hey, something's missing..." then you are correct. There are no vertical members, or spandrels, holding the roadbed up. That's because, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 122 hollow arch and 196 roadbed segments were engineered and cast to eliminate the need for vertical supports, thus making this America's first segmentally constructed arch bridge. But thankfully, all three vertical supporting piers are solid concrete and were poured in place.

From 1992 to 1994, I stood on the same piece of ground on Highway 96 and took pictures as the bridge was built. I had no idea what the final structure was going to look like, but my father, who was on the Parkway board, told me it was going to be "something else." And it surely is.

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Work has barely begun on the daunting structure.

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I'm still standing on the same spot, but the highway now has an additional lane under me. A center lane was added for left turns onto the Parkway when it was finished. The first half of the North Arch is being assembled. Driving under that appendage was "disconcerting" at best.

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Eighteen hundred tons of concrete were held by cables over Highway 96 until the south half of the arch could be assembled. The center section had to be poured in place.

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Finally, the two arch halves are joined; I can still hear the collective sighs of relief from the engineers. That black box-looking thing under the arch's center was a safety net in case somebody fell.

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And this was their view soon after, with the support cables removed. The South Arch (On the left) is beginning to take shape as well.

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The hollow arch and roadbed castings (shown) were poured about 10 miles away in Franklin.

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Looking back toward the East, that's about 150 feet of roadbed on each side of Pier Number Two just sitting there. This balancing act was indescribeable... nothing but bolts and glue were holding hundreds of tons of concrete segments together.

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About 18 months after construction started, the superstructure, or roadbed section, is beginning to come together.

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Here's a closer view of the bridge that day. The nearer you get to the arch, the more impressive it looks.

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Getting even closer, some detail of the installation of a roadbed segment is clear.

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Just by chance, one day I caught a picture of one of the roadbed pieces being delivered. Each section weighed up to 55 tons (110,000 pounds), plus the transport truck & trailer. This was well over the legal highway weight limit of 80,000 pounds.

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This photo was taken sometime before the bridge opened on March 22, 1994.

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I'd like to repeat this "before" image to show how the finished bridge blends into the landscape as cleanly as possible.

The bridge has received international recognition; the March 3, 1997 USA Today issue compared it to the Roman Pont du Gard Aqueduct, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and others. And according to Wikipedia, it earned a Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1995, and an Award of Merit from the Federal Highway Administration in 1996. The Eleventh International Bridge Conference named it the single most outstanding achievement in the bridge industry for 1994. And we locals are very honored to have it virtually in our back yards.

The Parkway is a haven for bicycles, motorhomes, and Harleys. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour or less, and a ticket may get you an appearance before the judge in Tupelo, Mississippi, at the Parkway's headquarters. So keep the Ferraris and crotch rockets at home, their potentials will truly be wasted here.

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Approaching the bridge from the North, you have no idea of the spectacular views just ahead.

East view
Looking East, the view from the bridge is not one for those afraid of heights. This is the photo that is in the January, 2000 Car and Driver "10 Best" issue.

Of course, this span has evoked a few legends. Like the one where, while the bridge was being built, some idiot flew a twin-engine plane under the main arch, scaring the workers and nearly blowing one of them off of the bridge. Around Halloween some rascallions used to drop pumpkins off of it, but now the Park Service keeps an eye on it on that date. Sadly, more than one person has jumped from it.

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There is a trail and overlook to provide this view of the bridge and Birdsong Hollow.

And then there's this tale of a few guys in military gear that dropped a rope off of the south arch and rappelled down it one night. Seems they had planned the event for months; they even had a drop-off point and a pick-up plan. The mission went seamlessly, nobody was hurt, and they had quite the story to tell their grandkids. Or so I was told.

So the next time you're in or near Nashville, it's worth your while to drive out and see this concrete colossus. On May 18, 2013, the Parkway celebrates its 75th Anniversary, so that might be a nice time to visit. Heck, gimme a shout ahead of time and I'll try to meet you there.

It's really something else.

--That  Rappelling  Car Guy (Chuck)

Image Credits: The inspiring aerial image is from StaticFlickr.com. The rest of the photos are mine.

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Very cool, both the bridge and the scenes of its construction. Alas, it appears the DAR doesn't (or didn't, in 1912) know the difference between "its" and "it's."

I love bridges. This one as awesome. Thanks for the story and the pics. My current fave is Pont de Normandie, in northern france. the link is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_Bridge

I want to visit yours tho, ha i can drive to that!.

great writeup, thanks! yeah I also found it funny that the 1912 sign used the wrong "it's".

And some of us thought the internet invented bad grammar LOL.

Great history lesson on bridge we pass under weekly and are still amazed with it's sight each time. You are right about the sides being a bit low, but looks great out of the big windows of the GMC Motorhome.

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