The Friends of Oconee Hill Cemetery, Inc., recently launched a “Save the Bridge” campaign to restore the historic iron truss bridge which spans the Oconee River, connecting the older part of the property to the new part. This is the first major project conducted by the organization since it completed the restoration of the Sexton’s House, located at the entrance to the cemetery on East Campus Road.
“Last summer, we hired engineers to survey the bridge and were pleased to learn that is structurally sound,” said Tom Wilfong, president of FOHC. “The most pressing need is to have the bridge sandblasted and painted so that rust cannot do any further damage.”
The work will be costly, and funding has been seeded with a grant from the Watson-Brown Junior Board and a lead donation from Sylvia M. and Robert E. Gibson, Friends members. The new campaign will help raise additional funding for the project.
The iron truss bridge, built by the George E. King Bridge Company of Des Moines, Iowa, dates from 1899. It's the sole connection between the original portion of the cemetery on the west side of the Oconee River and the new (though it is over 100 years old) sections on the east side. It is an architectural and archeological gem in its own right.
According to Wilfong, pontists (bridge aficionados) examining the bridge declare it to be “a sweetheart…noteworthy for the decorative cast iron cresting at the portals and the builders plate” and ”without a doubt one of the best examples of its type in Georgia.”
Eric Delony, Chief of the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record, says, “This is a stunning bridge! I never dreamed Georgia would have a bridge of this quality and vintage…Thank God your bridge was relocated to a cemetery. That’s the only reason it survives…”
In 2009, FOHC sought and obtained a $7,500 grant from the Athens Area Junior Board of the Watson-Brown Foundation for an engineering analysis. The firm of Hatch Mott MacDonald of Atlanta was engaged to inspect the bridge and prepare a report on its load-rating together with recommendations for its rehabilitation. Findings were that the bridge is basically sound. However suggested repairs and maintenance issues were estimated to cost many thousands of dollars.
In order to address these issues, the FOHC has divided the proposed improvements into separate projects. The sand blasting and painting is the first task to be addressed.
Wilfong added, “We would also like to designate funds for work on the supports and the approaches when such work becomes necessary. We want the bridge not only to serve as the physical link between the old and new sections of the cemetery, but also as the visual symbol of the bridge we have in the cemetery and its place in this area’s history and heritage.”