Ask Hamilton — The Millon-Dollar Bridge

Construction of the bridge in March 1915. Two crews worked on either side of the river mixing concrete and delivering 20-gallon buckets of concrete via cable lines that were supported by two 200-foot steel towers on either side. The mechanism, designed by Ernest Holmes and Barney Strickland of Holmes and Strickland Pattern Work Co., significantly reduced labor time. The concrete mixing machines were created specifically for the Market Street Bridge project to produce high-quality concrete work efficiently – something unheard of at its time.

Dear Hamilton,

 I recently heard that 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Market Street Bridge. Folks mention the Walnut Street Bridge for its significance, but is there anything noteworthy about its sister bridge on Market Street? 

Bridge Admirer

Entrance to the Market Street Bridge during the 1917 flood. A Coca-Cola billboard to the right is submerged in water.

Dear Bridge Admirer,

So glad you asked! This year does mark 100 years after the completion of the Market Street Bridge in 1917. Oh, if this bridge could talk, imagine what we could learn about our city!

We do know a bit about the bridge’s beginning and construction. Before the Market Street Bridge, there were two bridges connecting the North and South shores: the military bridge, built during the Civil War, and the Walnut Street Bridge. The military bridge was a wooden drawbridge near the current Market Street location. Post war, it was left to the city of Chattanooga, but by 1867, it was washed away when the greatest flood on local record reached 579 feet! Chattanoogans had to rely on ferry services until the Walnut Street Bridge was completed in 1891.

By 1911, officials began planning for a new bridge due to load limits and costly repairs on the Walnut Street Bridge. As the commercial center of downtown, Market Street became the logical location for the bridge. After sifting through submissions, the bridge commission chose a design for a concrete bridge submitted by New Yorker Benjamin H. Davis, a renowned engineer. Davis was also hired as a consulting engineer, and construction began in November 1914.

Construction was delayed several times due to severe flooding in 1915 and 1916. The flooding destroyed a large part of the construction and sent costs soaring. The bridge commission blamed Davis for the rising costs and fired him. Davis sued, and in 1920, he was awarded damages.

Three years after beginning construction, the bridge was finished at a total cost of $1.1 million, double the projected cost, triggering the nickname, “million-dollar bridge.” After repeated inspections, the bridge was dedicated on November 17, 1917, and the city celebrated with a parade across it.

The Market Street Bridge was a major feat of engineering at the time. The main channel span, allowing boats passage, was an impressive 310-foot wide double-leaf bascule lift bridge. In 1917, it was the longest span of its type in the world. Even today when closed, the bridge still offers considerable clearance for boats, due to its great height. It is also one of only a handful in the United States that accommodates both foot and automobile traffic.

In 1950, the bridge was renamed Chief John Ross Bridge to commemorate Chattanooga’s beginnings, but people still refer to it as the Market Street Bridge. Renovations were done to the bridge from 2005-2007, and many Chattanoogans may remember the weekend celebration the city threw when the bridge officially reopened to traffic in August 2007.

Interestingly, the bridge’s bright blue wasn’t always its color. As recently as 1997, the bridge was painted green, but you’ll notice that now all the bridges nearby are painted the same blue hue, which is referred to by the TDOT Structures Division as “Chattanooga Blue.”

Hope this helps!

Yours sincerely,
Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee

In 1950, the bridge opened accidentally for six hours. Two cars that were on the bridge were trapped between the south concrete counterweight and the river. Jacks had to be used to lift the counterweight. Thankfully, no one was injured.

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