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Article Author: David James
The Great Bridge Collapse



Mamie first heard a loud noise. She saw the bridge collapsing along with a large tractor-trailer and a passenger car. All on the bridge plunged into the icy waters of the Hiwassee River.

It was the afternoon of January 6, 1949. The bridge spanned U.S. Highway 411 midway between Etowah and Benton. Both news accounts and the memory of those still living differ as to the exact time of day. Some think as early as 1:45 p.m. or as late as 3 p.m.

Mamie Plumley, 16, (Now Mrs. Knox Henry Melton of Etowah) was sitting on the back steps of her home located just up the hill on the south side of the river and on the west side of U.S. 411.

Mamie shouted for her family to come outside and they rushed down the hill to witness what had just occurred. As they stood at the water’s edge, the site looked like carnage. She told The Polk County News this week, “There was nothing we could do. We saw three men climb out of a black car and on top of the roof of the auto. They were halfway across the river.”

The three men were Wes Harbison, 55, James H. ‘Sackey’ Culpeper, 45, and R.L. Lanning, 28, all residents of Delano just a mile to the north. Harbison was the father of longtime Etowah educator Andy Harbison. Culpepper was the Uncle of Max ‘Dad’ Culpeper of Delano. Lanning was the father of Joe Dean Lanning of Reliance and Larry ‘Ode’ Lanning of Etowah.

The 1947 black Ford passenger car, driven by Harbison, was traveling north in front of the big rig. Habrison later told a Chattanooga newspaper, “I looked in the rear-view mirror and the big truck was jack-knifing. The bridge was falling behind us. I tried to speed up but it was too late. We slid backwards into the water.”

The truck was under deep water but the car carrying the three men only sank to its rooftop. Some conjectured that it was sitting on a large underwater boulder. Lanning was finally able to get the car window down and the three men exited the car and climbed onto its roof.

Upon hearing what had occurred, Cecil Lanning (brother of R.L.) and Roy Bryant came quickly from their home on the Benton side with a rubber raft and went into the river. The pair pulled themselves along the swift water by holding onto portions of the collapsed bridge. When they reached the passenger car, they pulled the men into the raft and made their way back to the shore on the Benton side.

As the above was taking place, Hub and Ester (Ester was R.L.’s sister) Burris went to the Lanning home in Delano to inform R.L.’s wife, Irene, and then 10 year-old Joe Dean and 8 year-old ‘Ode’. The family was driven to the scene by Andy Harbison. Both Joe Dean and Ode told The Polk County News, “When we got the river Dad, Wes, and Sackey were on the Benton side and out on the shore. They were cold but not hurt.”

As traffic began to back up, Polk County Sheriff John Edwards had traffic south at Ocoee diverted into Cleveland and eventually onto to U.S. Hwy 411. In Etowah traffic was diverted onto what is now the “old” Athens Highway 30 and eventually over to Highway 11 west of Athens.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Troopers T.J. Sirey and Tom Moore assisted in finding the two men in the truck. On January 7th, a ten-man team from the Tennessee Highway Patrol was able to cut open the top of the rig and secure the two bodies.

Dead at the scene were two brothers, Guy R. Rickard, of Deerfield Michigan, and Hayes Rickard, Jr., of Britton, Michigan. They were brought to the surface by Tom Burnette and Blair Ramsey of the Highway Department Rescue Team. According to reports, the pair died by drowning.

The bridge itself had been built in 1908 by the Joilet (Illinois) Bridge Company. Two men at the scene, Charles Cole and H.M. McClary, told an area news publication, “The bridge did not have a weight limit sign. There had not been one there for a number of years.”

Mamie Plumley told The Polk County News, “Later after the bridge collapsed, my brother used a canoe for 2-3 days ferrying people back and forth across the river. Some needed to get to Etowah and some to Benton.”

Sixty-three years later folks still talk about the collapse. Some speculate that there were 3 men in the big truck that was carrying oranges, apples, pecans, and tangerines. A third body never surfaced.

Eventually the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a temporary pontoon bridge to again connect the two neighboring cities of Benton and Etowah.

About the Author: David James started his newspaper career as a sports writer for the Daily Post-Athenian in 1968. He was the Managing Editor of the Etowah Enterprise from 1970 through 1976. In 1977, he became owner and publisher of the Dickson County Free Press and in 1978 he purchased The Polk County News from Jasper Woody. James was the Owner and publisher of the publication until he sold it to Randy and Ingrid Buehler in 1983. James has won numerous Tennessee Press Association awards for sports, feature, and editorial writing. He now resides in Etowah where he was born in 1940. He is married to the former Jean Bacon of Riceville.

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