Building bridges: A vintage family photo links past and present

June 1, 2013 6:25:10 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


The old photograph was folded and worn, its edges fading, like the 16 faces looking out from its sepia surface. Donna Pannell Bain remembers the day she found it, tucked among forgotten newspapers and pictures her great-aunt Sadie Robinson had stored away before her death in 1998. 


Bain knew right away what it was -- the photograph she'd known existed, the one of her great-grandfather Aaron Burett Davis and his crew building concrete piers for the "new" Tombigbee River Bridge in downtown Columbus 87 years ago. 


"The picture was creased, and the creases were about to tear, so I immediately wanted to have it framed to preserve it," said Bain, a Columbus native living near Carrollton, Ala. "I was so excited to find it! That was my great-grandfather, and that bridge is a piece of history and a symbol of Columbus." 


The moment frozen in time Sept. 20, 1926, by photographer Otis N. Pruitt shows Davis and his paint horse, standing on a plank-way leading from the west bank to a jumble of wooden scaffolding in the water. Around him, workmen have stopped their intense labor, posed for Pruitt's lens. Behind them, the new bridge is going up. In the distant background, the outdated bridge it would replace still spans the river, but its days are numbered. 




Passage of time 


What a difference nine decades make. That new bridge that marked such a modern advancement in 1926 is now "the old bridge" at the foot of Main Street. 


In 1989, an underwater inspection led to its conversion to one-lane traffic, according to a history at In 1991, the bridge that took Columbians westward on Old Highway 82 to the Prairie, to Starkville, to fabled haunts like Bob's Place, the Southernaire and the Silver Spur, was finally closed to traffic. It's been standing dormant ever since, providing shade and shelter in recent years to visitors and musicians at the Riverwalk, but not much else. 


Aaron Burett Davis -- A.B. to family and friends -- and his crew would surely be pleased to know the story doesn't end there. 






A partnership between the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the City of Columbus, Lowndes County and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau has breathed new life into the bridge, re-purposing it as an attractive pedestrian walkway and event site. Completion of the project is expected in July. 


Coach lighting is already in place, and the concrete piers Davis helped build boast a fresh coat of silver-slate paint. Additional lighting features are being planned and an area at the base of the west end of the bridge will be cleared and offer seating and picnic spots, said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the CVB and Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation. A community-wide barbecue and blues-style grand opening is anticipated for early fall. 


"Already I've been asked about the possibility of hosting myriad events there, but I do think one of the first events should be open to the public, one that encompasses what we're known for -- good food, good music and southern hospitality," Carpenter remarked.  


Donna Bain and her mother, Nina Pannell of Columbus, couldn't be more pleased. 


"I'm so glad it's not going to go to a rubble pile," said Pannell, who lived with her bridge-building Grandfather Davis and her grandmother growing up. She remembered being shown the Pruitt photograph on several occasions.  


"I think it's wonderful they're restoring the bridge and that we'll be able to walk on it. I think it's going to be a great addition to Columbus and to the Riverwalk." 


Carpenter feels the bridge renovation will enhance quality of life and tourism, too.  


"When people come to Columbus they see we're serious about historic preservation and the redevelopment efforts that are going on." 




Family memories 


Pannell remembers hearing tidbits of bridge history from her late aunt, Selma Davis Smith. She was one of A.B. Davis' daughters, and a school teacher for 44 years at Barrow and Fairview Schools in Columbus. She had the grand distinction of being the first person to drive across the bridge after it was completed in 1927. Her family's contributions to the project were a source of pride.  


There were other stories -- of how the bridge contractor, S.J. Riley, was killed during construction, and of a drowning death among the crews. Much more than money was spent to bring Columbus its new bridge in the early 20th century. 


The cherished vintage photograph hangs now in Bain's home, in a prominent display of family pictures of the era. A.B. Davis' bride, Nellie, is there, along with the couple's four daughters, Selma, Sadie, Gladys and Louise. 


"The bridge really means something to me, because my great-grandfather helped build it and because it's a part of where I grew up," said Bain. "If he could see the bridge being renovated today, I'm sure he'd experience a great sense of pride and accomplishment, that he had worked on something that was lasting."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.