Edmund Pettus still bridging gaps

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

The 1940 Souvenir Program of the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge Celebration, sold for 25 cents, chronicled the end of the &8220;horse-and-buggy bridge&8221; and heralded &8220;the opening of the finest bridge between Savannah and San Diego.&8221;

Selma Mayor Lucian Burns and Dallas County Probate Judge Watkins Vaughan hosted the event in 1940.

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Though we’ve yet to reach the tomorrow of jet jaunts replacing auto traffic across the Alabama River, the 1940 Edmund Pettus Bridge continues its vital role for the Selma community.

Excitement was high at the bridge’s inception.

The original bridge across the river, stretching from the Bridge Tender’s House off Water Avenue to the foot of the Pettus Bridge today, was built by private enterprise.

The construction was begun in 1884 and completed in 1885.

The cost: $55,000.

Until 1900, tolls ranging from five cents to 75 cents were charged to pedestrians, peddlers, horsemen, buggies and wagons.

In 1900, Dallas County purchased the bridge for $65,000 and made it free to cross.

According to George Needham, owner of the Bridge Tender’s House, which is today a bed and breakfast, &8220;the original bridge was 800′ in length, a wooden-deck bridge, and was secured by cables instead of steel beams.&8221;

The bridge had three spans and required a tender to open the north span when river traffic needed to pass.

The tender and his family occupied the Bridge Tender’s House.

The tender was on duty 24 hours a day.

After the Edmund Pettus Bridge opened in 1940, the old bridge was removed.

The curved landing, cornerstone and Bridge Tender’s House are the only remaining artifacts from the original bridge.

Edmund Winston Pettus was a United States Senator from 1896 until his death in July 1907.

When Alabama seceded from the Union in January 1861, Pettus was chosen to act as a commissioner to represent Alabama in its dialogues with other Southern states.

He went on to climb Confederate ranks, becoming a Brigadier-General of acclaim for his leadership at Vicksburg. He returned to Selma after the war and worked to rebuild the state and city, eventually becoming a Senator.

The original lights from the Pettus Bridge were removed in the 1950s and replaced by brighter lights.

At the time, County Probate Judge Reynolds and Mayor Heinz permitted the removed lights to be acquired by people to use as streetlights in front of their homes.

Today, some of the surviving lights stand in front of homes in Selma neighborhoods, in front of Town & Country Realty, and in Auburn, Alabama.

In March 1965, the Edmund Pettus Bridge became an icon of the struggle for voting rights.

On the 7th, marchers began the movement that would culminate at the end of the month in a march to Montgomery that became 25,000 marchers strong and would prompt President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today, tourists come to visit the site of the struggle that activated nationwide change. The historic stretch of highway continues to be developed on federal, state, and local levels. The annual Jubliee celebration to commemorate the struggle occurs March 3-5.

The 1940 program states &8220;we have become a part of a great system of national highways.

The road that used to connect us with Montgomery has become a highway that connects us with all America.&8221;

Today the connection exceeds that of just a roadway – the Pettus Bridge has come to be symbolic of bridgebuilding on an epic scale – economics, traffic, history, and freedom all circulate across this historic passageway.