Hit after hit, is historic Concord Road Covered Bridge worth keeping?

Correction: Sunday's story about the Concord Road Covered Bridge in Cobb County referred to the bridge as from the antebellum period. The bridge was built after the Civil War in 1872.

The GPS was robotically barking directions, calls were coming in and the line of cars was growing. Alfredo Tello was already 20 minutes late to a job site when he and the massive piece of construction equipment he was hauling almost destroyed the Concord Road Covered Bridge.

The 145-year-old wooden piece of history was a treasure for Cobb County, but it was standing between him and getting paid that day.

Tello is one of the seven people to nearly hit the bridge since it re-opened in December after an overhaul that cost taxpayers about $1 million.

“It felt like the whole bridge collapsed,” he said.

Credit: Cobb County Government

Credit: Cobb County Government

It didn’t collapse. The giant metal staples installed on either side of the bridge by the Cobb transportation department as a warning to the seven-foot clearance were breaking according to plan. They are made to break so drivers hit metal instead of wood, which would cause the piece of history to crumble into Nickajack Creek.

With so many hits, some question whether the bridge should exist. Whenever the 133-foot-long structure narrowly misses catastrophe, people make fun of the drivers on social media — an online version of rubbernecking. But for some Cobb residents, they can’t imagine their county without their covered bridge.

The bridge was built in 1872 and is among the 13 authentic covered bridges in Georgia, said Scott Wagner, a director of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges.

Americans began covering bridges in the late 1700s because it is easier to replace a roof on a bridge than the support beams of the actual structure, he said. Covered bridges were popular in cities at the time, but are unable to handle the weight and stress from modern vehicles without some updating,Wagner said.

Metro Atlanta’s only other covered bridge is in Stone Mountain Park and gets much less traffic than the Concord Road bridge near Smyrna, he said.

The Concord covered bridge, along with a nearby gristmill and the house where the mill operators lived, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places nearly four decades ago. As part of the National Register process, a surveyor wrote a report justifying why the bridge and area were worth federal protection.

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

According to that report, ownership of the bridge was transferred to the county in 1888. The county could not say how much money has been put into the bridge since then.

The federal surveyor wrote that concrete supports were added in 1965 to strengthen the bridge to “accommodate modern automobile traffic.”

The bridge was born anew at the end of 2017 after four months of work and $802,000 of special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, funds because it was leaning.

“We will do what it takes to keep that bridge in tact,” said Bill Shelton, head of Cobb’s road maintenance.

Often when the bridge almost meets its demise, Shelton said, drivers are hauling construction equipment or driving a rented U-Haul truck for moving.

The county charges drivers who break the protective bar between $400 and $600, more if it’s during weekends or nights when workers are off duty.

Money isn’t really the issue — remember, the bar is built to break — but it’s a timesuck.

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“It’s like being a first responder,” said Kenneth Haywood, a member of the county’s bridge maintenance team. “We have to drop everything.”

The beam is back up in 30 minutes, but it means the pothole outside your home remains unfilled that much longer.

Lisa Cupid, the Cobb commissioner who represents the area, said she gets residents talking to her about the bridge in person, over email and on Facebook.

“This is an issue, and it’s not going away,” she said.

There are no planned changes or expenditures for the bridge any time soon, the commissioner said.

Haywood, the county bridge worker, knows that accidents happen, but he doesn’t understand how warning lights powered by motion detectors and several signs escape people.

“It gets frustrating for the fact that (the county) spent so much money,” he said.

It gets frustrating for Ron Gause because this is all happening in his front yard.

The 83-year-old has lived on the Mableton side of the bridge, where most of the accidents happen, for 14 years.

Credit: Cobb County Government

Credit: Cobb County Government

Records from the county’s police and 911 departments do not show that there have been any major injuries since December. The windshield of one U-Haul shattered, causing minor cuts to a woman.

But about three years ago, a bicyclist wearing sunglasses was heading into the dark bridge and lost control.

“I found his finger in the bridge, wrapped it in paper towel, placed it in a bag of ice and had him sitting on my front steps when the EMTs arrived,” said Gause, who was a Coweta County firefighter for 18 years.

“It had never entered my mind when we moved here,” he said. “We love the home, we love the location, and we love the bridge.”

Some have suggested closing the bridge to automobiles. It’s estimated that the bridge handles about 10,000 vehicles a day.

The problem with that is funding for maintenance slows once the bridge becomes pedestrian-only because officials look at it as a lower priority, said Wagner, the covered bridge enthusiast.

Wagner, who lives in New Hampshire, tracks the accidents at the Concord Road bridge. For other bridges “four times in a year is excessive.” But seven hits in as many months? “It just means there’s a lot of people out there who don’t care.”

His suggestion to stop misguided drivers is fines, to “hit them in their pocket where it hurts the most … take away their ability to make a living.”

That’s all a bit extreme to Tello, who ran into the bridge in April. He’d like to see vehicles off the covered bridge.

“Regardless of what people say, it’s dangerous.”

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