Home Lifestyle COLUMN: The Battle of Swift Island Bridge Part II

COLUMN: The Battle of Swift Island Bridge Part II

The current Swift Island Bridge across the Pee Dee River. A new bridge, currently under construction, is expected to be complete next year.
Photos by William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

Last week, I told you the story of a sick Confederate soldier returning home by way of the Swift Island Ferry. After crossing the ferry, he tried his best to make it home but died only a mile away from it.

I also told you about how in 1922, a new state-of-the-art cement bridge replaced the old ferry, but only lasted for four years.

You know, progress works in mysterious ways.

In the early 1900’s, automobiles were becoming the American way of travel. Hydroelectric power was also finding its way into homes and businesses. To produce this power, hydroelectric dams were being built along the Pee Dee River.

The first dam to be built on the river was at Blewett Falls. Although several companies were involved, Carolina Power and Light ended up owning the dam. This dam formed Blewett Falls Lake.

The second dam, about 20 miles up-river around Norwood, was called Tillery. It was completed around 1926 and later formed Lake Tillery.

We all know that when you dam up water, the water behind the dam is going to rise and spread out. The electrical engineers working on Tillery knew that when the lake behind the dam started to rise, it would flood over the three spans of the Swift Island Ferry Bridge. The bridge had just been built in 1922 and was located about 10 miles upriver from the dam.

It was decided that CP&L would supply the funds for a new bridge, the state of North Carolina would oversee building it, and the U.S. War Department would be given the job of destroying the old bridge.

Before the U.S. Army started its job on the old bridge, a lot of valuable information had to be gathered, like how much weight the old bridge would hold before its arches cracked.

To accomplish this, several huge wooden tanks were built on wheels. Each empty tank was weighed and then the tanks were spread out on top of the bridge just over the arches. Water was pumped out of the river into the tanks and each gallon was counted. With water weight being 8.34 pounds per gallon, engineers knew exactly the weight being placed on the old bridge.

More precise measurements were taken each step of the way. This information would be used down the road on future bridge projects.

Then the Army was given the go-ahead to demolish the bridge. The “Battle of Swift Island Bridge” had begun.

First, the Army loaded the bridge with all types of weight, hoping to weaken the structure. Second, there was an aerial bombardment from warplanes. Third, was a barrage of artillery shells.

All failed to take down the bridge.

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Finally, out of desperation, landmines were laid at different points under the bridge. By using 2,000 pounds of TNT, the old bridge finally came down, much to the delight of the U.S. Army.

A new two-lane bridge was completed over the river around 1927. Over the years, new four-lane bridges took the place of the decaying old ones. In 1979, these new bridges were named for James B. Garrison, former N.C. state senator. Even as I write this column, one of the bridges is being widened.

Future Swift Island Bridge under construction across the Pee Dee River.

You would think that the story ends here about the old 1922 Swift Island Ferry Bridge, but more history of the river revealed itself in the 1990s.

Seems the water level of the lake was lowered that year to do maintenance on the Tillery Dam. Two men who lived along the river, ’bout where the old bridge was located, were walking the riverbank. They were looking for things that could only be spotted when the water level was so low.

As they walked along, they spotted something just off the bank that was in the shape of an old bomb. Observing it more closely, they decided to call the authorities.

When authorities came, they too thought it could be an un-exploded bomb. The area was closed off in all directions, even the boat traffic was halted in the area. Fort Bragg was notified and a bomb squad soon arrived.

Not knowing what era of bomb they were dealing with, another call was made and another bomb squad soon arrived. Pictures were taken and compared with bombs of the past. Finally, the Army said it was a pre-World War II-type of bomb, and it was possibly live.

The bomb was very gently winched from the river and carried off in a four-wheeled vehicle. It weighed almost 650 pounds, was 52 inches long, with a diameter of 14.5 inches. The Army gave a later report on the bomb, saying it was more than likely one of the bombs used in the air demolition of the old 1922 bridge by the Army Air Corps.

So, what other mysteries might lurk under the muddy waters of the mighty Pee Dee?

Pee Dee River, north of Blewett Falls Lake.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and recently released a new book, “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories.” Contact him at ja@jabolton.com.