Covered bridges evoke a sense of nostalgia, charm and simpler times. Who can forget the 1995 romantic drama, The Bridges of Madison County, filmed in Iowa, and starring Merle Streep and Clint Eastwood? After the movie, tourists flocked to the area, because something about a covered bridge speaks to our soul! The state of Georgia has its own array of picturesque and historic covered bridges. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, our state once featured over 250 covered bridges, but today you will find fewer than 20.
Why cover a bridge? Back in the day, bridges were built of wood, and harsh weather conditions deteriorated the wood quickly. It was determined that covering a bridge to protect the roadway timbers increased its life-expectancy by 40 years! Covering a bridge proved serendipitous in other ways as well, providing shelter from the rain and shade from the hot sun. A covered bridge kept horses from shying as they crossed a body of water, and it offered a private place for young lovers to meet and steal a kiss – hence the name often given to covered bridges – “kissing bridges!”
The most renowned bridge builder in Georgia was Horace King, born a slave in 1807 but later freed in 1846 by his former master, mentor and building contractor, John Godwin, who understood King’s construction talents. Using the Town’s Lattice Truss design, King built more than 100 covered bridges in Georgia and throughout the South. Later his sons joined him in the family business. After the Civil War, King served in the Alabama legislature, before moving to LaGrange, where he died in 1885. His unmarked grave was discovered in 1978, and a headstone was placed there with the inscription, “Horace King, Master Covered Bridge Builder.”
Avoid much of Atlanta’s traffic and enjoy a back roads day trip to a rural, agricultural section, east of Atlanta, to view four covered bridges, a gristmill, a pop-culture icon, and some good eating! This trip will traverse about a 300 mile loop that takes about 10 hours, depending on how long you linger.
FIRST STOP: Stone Mountain Park,
1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Stone Mountain
Begin your adventure in this park that features the iconic granite outcropping, and plan to spend some extended time here! Take I-285 E to Exit 39B for US 78E. Take US 78E to Exit 8 for the main entrance to Stone Mountain Park. Please note, there is a $15 parking fee. You will receive a detailed map of the park that will list the location of the covered bridge and nearby gristmill.
In 1891, Washington W. King, son of noted bridge builder Horace King, built this 151 foot long covered bridge that formerly spanned the Oconee River in Athens. In 1965, the bridge was purchased for $1 and moved to its present location, spanning a portion of Stone Mountain Lake. You can drive or walk across the bridge expanse. As you cross, notice the diagonal lattice design elements. This is called Town’s Lattice Truss design, and is the most common bridge construction for Georgia’s covered bridges. With no vertical elements, the diagonals handle compression and tension loads, allowing for a bridge span of up to 220 feet. Nearby, you will find a gristmill built in 1869 to serve Ellijay, before being moved to the park. You can make Stone Mountain Park a whole day outing, since you will find opportunities for camping, picnicking, dining, hiking, horse trails, biking, fishing and boating.
SECOND STOP: Lunch at Mama’s Boy,
197 Oak St., and the “Murmur” Trestle, Dudley Park, S. Poplar St., Athens
There is no better eating than in Athens, so why not stop in the “Classic City” for lunch? From Stone Mountain Park, take US 78/GA 10 to GA 124 and go left. Turn right on Sugarloaf Pkwy to merge onto US 29/GA 316. After 27 miles, merge onto the east perimeter loop (GA 10) around Athens. Take exit 8 and turn left on Oak St. Mama’s Boy is one of the most popular, trendy, and crowded breakfast and lunch diners in Athens. You can’t beat the breakfast menu, served until closing at 3:30 p.m.
After enjoying this scrumptious southern fare, walk off a few calories by following S. Popular St., (right behind the restaurant) for one block to Dudley Park, and you can’t miss the massive, abandoned, train trestle! The trestle was once part of the Georgia Railroad line between Athens and Augusta and was built in 1883 to cross Trail Creek. The railroad line was discontinued in 1997. The Trail Creek trestle gained international fame in 1983, when it was featured on the back cover of the debut album, “Murmur,” of R.E.M., the renowned Athen’s rock band. Fans still make pilgrimages today to Athens to see this pop icon, affectionately known as the “Murmur Trestle.”
THIRD STOP: Howard’s Covered Bridge,
420 Chandler Silver Rd., Comer
From Mama’s Boy, get back on GA 10 perimeter loop, continuing east to GA 72 E to the quaint town of Colbert. Turn right on Fourth St. and then left on Eighth St. After about 2 miles, Eighth St. becomes Smithonia Colbert Rd. and then Smithonia Rd. Continue to Chandler Silver Rd. and turn left. You will see the covered bridge on your right. Howard’s Covered Bridge was named for a pioneer family who lived on Big Cloud’s Creek in the 1700’s. It was probably built by James M. “Pink” Hunt, who also built Cromer’s Mill Covered Bridge in nearby Royston. The current bridge was built in 1904, in the Town’s Lattice Truce design, to replace a former structure on the site.
FOURTH STOP: Watson Mill Covered Bridge,
650 Watson Mill Rd., Comer
You don’t have to go far to enjoy another historic bridge and beautiful scenery at Watson Mill Bridge State Park. Retrace your route toward Colbert on Chandler Silver Rd. and Smithonia Rd. to Collier Church Rd. where you will turn right. This road becomes Watson Mill Rd. and will lead you into the state park. There is a $5 parking fee. Almost immediately you will see the Watson Mill Covered Bridge ahead of you – the largest, original-site covered bridge in the state. It spans South Fork River at 229 feet. Built in 1885 by Washington W. King, in the Town’s Lattice Truss design, the bridge is the centerpiece of the 1,000 acres of parkland. It is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch and a hike. Locals love to wade out into the stream, just below the covered bridge and eat their picnics on one of the granite shoals that dot the area. Restroom facilities are available at the nearby Visitors Center.
FIFTH STOP: Elder Mill Covered Bridge,
144 Elder Mill Rd., Watkinsville
Our last stop before heading back home is in Watkinsville. Drive through Watson Mill Covered Bridge and through the park, then turn left and cross the railroad tracks to get you back on GA 72 toward Comer. (Please note there is no sign for 72 so remember to cross the tracks. The park brochure has a helpful map). Take GA 72 back to US 29/GA 10 (the Athens perimeter loop) and take the exit for Watkinsville south (US 441/129/15). Take GA 15 S for 4.5 miles and turn right on Elder Mill Rd. The bridge will be ahead of you. Cross the bridge and park in the small lot. Elder Mill Covered Bridge was built in 1897 by Nathaniel Richardson, originally to cross Calls Creek on the Athens-Watkinsville Rd. In 1924, the 99 foot bridge was moved to its present spot over Rose Creek and is still used today. There is a nearby abandoned gristmill, built in 1900, but it is hard to find!
Head home by taking GA 15 N back toward Watkinsville. Get on GA 441/129 S toward Madison and then onto I-20 E. If you have the time, you can end your day with a splendid buffet meal at another southern icon, the Blue Willow Inn, 294 N. Cherokee Rd. in Social Circle, exit 98 on I-20.
For more information about covered bridges go to: