Calamity at Steel's Bridge

by Bruce Baker

On the west side of the Bridge Mill Community is a road named Steel’s Bridge Road, which at one time led to a long wooden covered bridge that crossed the Etowah River. The site of the bridge is now underneath Lake Allatoona, which was built by the Corps of Engineers just after World War II. But an important moment in Cherokee County history took place on Steel’s Bridge during World War I, a tragedy we should not forget.

President Wilson’s decision to enter “The War to End All Wars” in 1917 was not a popular one, having won reelection in November of 1916 with the campaign slogan “he kept us out of the war.” His desire for neutrality was ultimately exhausted by repeated German threats on American interests, including merchant ships and an attempt to form an alliance with Mexico. In June of 1917, American men ages 21-30 began being drafted into military service and before the end of the year they were fighting in Europe. On June 5th, 1918, a second round of draft registration was delivered to all those who had just turned 21 and so were now eligible.

Image: Woodrow Wilson, courtesy of Library of Congress

As in every war, some of these young men opted not to show up when they were called upon, instead electing to avoid service by going into hiding. In the Atlanta metro area there began to appear “anti-draft clubs,” groups that actively encouraged draft dodging, and desertion, even abetting those who did so. In Canton, a Deputy US Marshall, along with several IRS agents and the Marietta Police Department were well aware of literally dozens of such young men hiding out in the backwoods of Cherokee County and requested help from the US Army to round them up. Presumed to be armed and dangerous, the army agreed to the mission, and on Sunday, June 16th sent fifty armed soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon in three two-ton Velie Trucks to accomplish the task. Behind them were several cars with police officers from Marietta, federal agents, and even a reporter and a photographer for the Atlanta Journal. They spent the morning in Woodstock on their task, then two of the trucks and four automobiles headed north towards Canton in the direction of a moonshine still where several of the youths being sought were known to be hiding.

The two trucks were finding the hills in the area a challenge, and so the cars reached the bridge first and crossed successfully. The commanding officer then decided to wait there for the trucks to catch up. When the first truck disappeared into the covered bridge, it managed to go only about twenty feet. Thereafter, a loud crash was heard, a cloud of smoke appeared, and the Velie truck lay upside down in the Etowah River 40 feet below, its wheels still turning and engine running. Soldiers from the second truck sprang into action, rushing down the slippery banks to rescue their eighteen comrades, many of whom were trapped under the truck. Two men died instantly, and a third moments later as he was carried to the bank; several others were injured in varying degrees of severity.

A photo taken moments after the fall, with soldiers surrounding the truck in the process of overturning it was captured by the Journal photographer; the journalist ran down the road over a mile to the nearest farmhouse to summon help. As it happened a local nurse named Winnie Carpenter was visiting the home; they drove back and she began treating the injured. Soon local farmers were transporting the injured to a hospital in Marietta; from there, an ambulance brought them to Fort Gordon. Ms. Carpenter later received a commendation for her efforts on that day.

Image: Bridge moments before collapse

The day after the incident, army personnel arrived on the scene, and after managing to haul the truck out of the creek and repair it, drove it back to Camp Gordon. A subsequent investigation of the accident revealed that the support timbers had been sawed nearly through; it was not an accident, but an act of sabotage. No one was ever arrested for the act. By November of that year, the war was over but the Spanish Flu Epidemic was ravaging the world. By June of 1919, the Spanish Flu had resulted in 21 million deaths worldwide—claiming more lives than had been lost in the war. The three soldiers who perished that day when Steel’s Bridge gave way-- Sergeant Abe Marquessee, Private Ernest Rhinesmith, and Corporal Sam Smith-- became just three of over forty million people lost to the war and the flu between 1914 and 1919.

The Cherokee County History Center, located in downtown Canton, is a history museum that features collections from over +10,000 years of history. The newest exhibit, “Serving Up History" is all about historic foodways in Cherokee County and the importance of food in the broader South through cookbooks, recipes, kitchen implements, and food preparation practices.