Down at the water’s edge, at the base of the abutment, large rectangular blocks of stone stack firmly against the rock levee. Above these thick stone courses, the blocks protrude outward, poised over the Elk River. This remnant of the first arch suggests how six great elliptical forms once spanned the channel of the Elk. Having scrambled down the steep-shouldered embankment to this vantage point, any viewer – an artist, perhaps – would find it hard to fathom the enormity of the Old Stone Bridge in its entirety.
Confirmed from the waterline, the lofty approaches appear distant from each other, their wide-extended draw leaving much to suppose and to formulate. It is alluring to speculate, contemplating the disentangled stone fragments that lie in periodic heaps, creating splashy surface water breaks. As a curious visitor, I came here compelled, once again, to imagine those huge fallen rocks lifted and locked back into place, to appear arranged and seated in front of me, forming as magnificent a bridge as ever joined one severed landing to another.
The proposition of fording the river at this spot with a dry-stone bridge is daunting, fantastic, and bold, to say the very least. Beginning at the high reaches of the North bank, pressing into openness and travelling 450 feet, at its midpoint sloping a little more than gently into the lower Southern ramp, the bridge straddled a body of often silt-laden water that ebbed and swelled, undulating from rest to rage. In an age when mind and muscle were the tools at hand, it followed a blueprint that hinged its strength and beauty upon a rare principle and design.
Sadly, after withstanding 107 years, the structure that existed heroically both across this vale and within our local consciousness lies now dismantled, the consequence of time, of aging, of the perils of daring, and of the relentless weight of its enormous rocks. The heavy thrust of volumes of water, and the massive impulse of a river fed fast and swelled with rain, collapsed the bridge with its century-old load.
Yet back in the day, architects, engineers, and laborers raised a bridge so massive and so lovely a sight to behold. The bridge a gentler option for the tired feet of straining mules, an easier rut for the wheels of unsprung wagons and carts, a playground for the magical enchantment of children exploring, and a seat for families resting, walking, fishing, and boating beneath the canopy of its six great crescents of stone. The stones they laid and the cap-stoned walls they leveled, scuffed the tapping heels of Sunday best shoes and everyday hand-me-downs equally at this confluence of tranquility and intended permanence framed by perfection.
The potential scene is irresistible. A grey weathered limestone causeway with dips and crags and cracks, splendidly growing old as it crosses the valley of the Elk. A picture of rural contentment where man’s marks and murmurs inhabit unanimously at a country pace, and at no point do they oppose the arrangement of nature’s display. Now a monument, its parts lie draped in the darker fabric of events, clinging like faded memories and alluvium to an ancient crossing on a Tennessee trail.
Nevertheless, local folk do not forget. You will hear countless statements of fact where remembered is an exact time. Punctuated in their minds is the minute, the hour, the day, the moment in their lives when the balanced formation of stones leaned awkwardly against the force of a historic flood and broke to become a ruin, a remnant, a reminder. From that day forward, those who had once had connection with the bridge, who had walked hand in hand across its ramparts, driven buggy or hayrack along its lane, or simply stood and gazed from afar upon its charm, were instantly denied those fortunes again. On Sunday morning, February 2nd, 1969, many souls of Lincoln County were suddenly and rudely deprived of an extraordinary champion.
Those who lived within the sphere of the bridge but barely recall the landmark, being too young or having only slight introduction to it, remember with faint impressions their encounter with the giant. To them, seeing, touching, commanding, and delighting in the wonder of the Old Stone Bridge will elude them always after that morning’s dreadful surprise.
Then there are those who succeed the bridge’s standing. They can only happen by chance or by charter to this site, relying on the porch-time tales of an amazing structure that in near antiquity graced quietly this green and notable crossing place in the river. They – we, for I am one – will never be called as witnesses to the remarkable traverse that before one fateful rain-soaked day was the Old Stone Bridge.
As an artist upon the scene, it is for me to do something. The tales that pass along and dress these stones; the records that scribe its being and etch its plan and show its form; the washed-smooth icons protruding from the river; and the pity I feel for this forlorn place: all these things and more lead me to set down my easel here. I will gaze upon the fragments if they are all I have; I will lift the relic stones from the throat of the river and recreate the Old Stone Bridge one more time. I will imply the mass and strength of the bridge by twisting my knowledge of its parts into a rope of paint: a rope that joins implanted strokes of pigment infused with the humid mist of this river; a rope of braiding and twinning and threading that connects, completes, and unites one side of an open canvas with the other. These painted signs will show the beginnings and the ends of a fine bridge that heaved into embankments; will be the linear expression of its precarious size and shape, its position upon the pedestals resting at the river’s bottom, its quality and standing as a magnificent accomplishment. These strokes will mark time and give strong impression to the signature chiseled by the builders of this astounding bridge. The slight and the deliberate, carefree and calculated, truths and falsehoods should exist on the canvas in equivalence with the subject before me. The likeness should be such that to affirm one notion of its character or to deny the other would be a contradiction.
The painting, based on my interpretation of the lore, is my testimony to the legacy of the Old Stone Bridge, how it graced our county, this valley, the river under its stride, and the hearts of Lincoln Countians. Just as a bridge connects, conveys, and impresses, so too can a painting take up those traits and allow viewers to live and relive between its borders, crossing freely between the real and the imagined for the duration of a lifetime.
For as long as it may stand, “The Old Stone Bridge” (the painting) may be seen courtesy of Bagley & Bagley Insurance in their store-front window on the North side of the square in Fayetteville.