The Concrete Arch

An iron plaque, and the not-quite-forgotten Luten Bridge Co.

This Friday, TDOT closes bidding on replacement of a small bridge on the edge of Bearden. It's not a bridge most of us would ever think much about. It's just a narrow concrete span over Fourth Creek, on the old part of Weisgarber, between Kingston Pike and Papermill. It has more dignified railings than most modern bridges do, with what's left of a simple rectangular design. Part of the concrete railing has been rebuilt, likely after a wreck, without duplicating the design.

But something about it caught the attention of my friend Bob Davis. Bob's best known as a pilot and historian of local aviation, but he's also a connoisseur of well-constructed bridges.

You don't have to be old to remember when Weisgarber was a windy road through woods and pastures. This part south of Papermill still isn't very busy, but with a massive new office complex nearly done, it's changing fast. You can't get a good look at the bridge unless you find some place to park and trespass afoot to look at it, but it has a nice arch over the creek. I looked at it on Saturday, in the rain. Fourth Creek, which we rarely see, having found ways to pretend it doesn't exist, was a violent river funneling through the arch.

Even though I was looking for it, I didn't notice the iron plaque at first, low on the bridge's eastern railing. Embossed are the words, "DESIGNED AND BUILT BY LUTEN BRIDGE CO. / KNOXVILLE TENN. / 1915."

That date makes it, at age 94, one of the older bridges in town. But what piqued Bob's interest was the name. Luten Bridge was once famous, and to bridge fanciers—and there seem to be a lot of them, nationally—it still is.

Daniel Luten, an assistant professor of hydraulics at Purdue, was a scholar of a new way to design bridges, emphasizing, always, concrete arches; in the late 1800s, it was, by civil-engineering standards, revolutionary. Around 1900, in Indianapolis, he put his theory into practice, founding the National Bridge Co.

In that era when most bridges were still made of wood or iron, Luten was a pioneer in that concrete-arch bridge design, which turned out to be practical and very durable. Eventually called Luten Bridge Co., his company built hundreds of bridges around the country. The Luten Co. had a regional branch based in Nashville for a while. The year of the Weisgarber bridge, 1915, appears to be the year Luten moved a substantial part of his managerial operations to Knoxville.

How much of it, I can't tell. Wikipedia says the whole Luten Bridge Co. was based in Knoxville; other accounts make it sound kind of like a regional branch—but several old Luten bridges out of state, especially in Arkansas and Ohio, have "Knoxville" embossed on their plaques. A website called Bridgehunter lists 40 of them still standing.

Luten himself seems to have stayed in Indianapolis. In the records, I can't tell that anyone named Luten has ever lived in Knoxville. Maybe this industrial city seemed like a great place for a bridge company; Knoxville, with its hills and big creeks, was a natural market for bridges, and the university, already known for its civil-engineering program, might have offered handy advice.

Luten's Knoxville presence seems at first to have existed in the person of one man named George Daugherty, a contractor originally from Pennsylvania, and president of the Luten Bridge Co. He moved here around 1915 and got an apartment in the Richard Building, at 405 East Fifth. Apartment 6 was his home and, for seven or eight years, the headquarters of the Luten Bridge Co. The company seems to have gotten a lot done: 10 Luten bridges in Tennessee alone in 1915, perhaps without requiring a big clerical staff. For all I know, that Weisgarber bridge may have been the company's first job from its Knoxville base.

Luten's original headquarters is still there. The Richard is still an occupied and well-kept apartment building on the fringe of Fourth and Gill.

Around 1922, Daugherty moved Luten's headquarters into the Mercantile Building, on the northeast corner of Gay and Church. The Luten Bridge Co. may be best known today for a landmark 1929 legal case, Rockingham County (N.C.) v. Luten Bridge Co. Rockingham hired Luten to build a bridge, then canceled the contract. Luten built the damn bridge anyway, and sued for payment. Rockingham won, and had to pay them only for the work done before they canceled the agreement. It seems to be an oft-cited work, useful to the wishy-washy.

Luten's biggest local project was the multi-arch Hill Avenue Bridge, which spanned First Creek west of Blount Mansion in 1936. Luten was just the designer; another local firm, V.L. Nicholson, built it. It survives as one of the city's older intact viaducts, but now just spans a highway; the creek's underground. (It's immortalized in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree; one of his main characters, the artless dodger Harrogate, lives beneath it.)

Luten faded as a local entity after World War II, about the same time Daniel Luten died, up in Indianapolis.

Daugherty spun off to start his own construction company; later in life he was better known for building high schools and other buildings, including Sequoyah Presbyterian, a late-career job. At age 79, he was killed in an head-on collision with a reckless driver on windy Solway Road, in 1966.

Bob Davis would like to see the bridge saved somehow. He knows this bridge, which probably saw more horses than cars in its early years, is probably inadequate for this rapidly developing area on the northeastern slope of Bearden Hill. But he says he's seen new bridges built beside historic ones, which are left intact.

From my non-engineering perspective, it looks as if a new bridge could be built alongside it—with the added benefit of straightening out Weisgarber a little.

But Davis knows, this being Knoxville, that he may have to settle for saving that plaque.