Opening the Fitzpatrick, Dec. 10, 1940
Courtesy of Bill Goss/Images of America - Tallassee, THPS
Benjamin Fitzpatrick's future
By Michael Butler
It is estimated that 6,000 people attended the ceremony dedicating the Benjamin Fitzpatrick Bridge on Dec. 10, 1940. Today, the structure is still Tallassee's sole connector from the east to west side and vice versa.
Approximately 13,000 vehicles pass over the Tallapoosa on the Fitzpatrick daily. It is revered as a marvel in engineering as one of the longest curved bridges in the world. It was given that distinction when it was unveiled to the public 75 years ago.
In the Dec. 17, 1940 edition of the Florence Times, the headline read; "Ben Fitzpatrick Bridge Open to Public."
"Erected at a cost of more than $600,000 this structure forms a vitally important link on State Highway 14," the article noted. "Built on a curve and a grade, the bridge is said to be the only one of its kind in the world, and is the state's highest - 143 feet above water level."
The bridge is named for former Alabama governor, Benjamin Fitzpatrick, who served as the state's 11th governor from 1841-45 and as a U.S. Senator afterwards. In 1860, he turned down a vice presidential nomination to partner with presidential nominee Stephen Douglas of the Democratic Party.
The Benjamin Fitzpatrick Bridge is roughly 1/3 of a mile, 1,738 feet long to be exact, or the length of about six football fields.
The bridge was last painted in 1999. It was inspected last month.
"We do a hands on inspection every year," said Alabama Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Brantley Kirk. "Some of the things we're looking for are; deficiencies within the structure that may require some maintenance. This allows us to comply with state and federal regulations."
The Fitzpatrick is of Warren Deck Truss design, which uses connecting elements that form triangular units. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis was a truss arch bridge that collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007. It killed 13 people and injured 145. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw as the likely cause of the collapse.
"(The Benjamin Fitzpatrick) is legal for all loads," said Kirk, "due to temporary work that we performed in 1997 to correct the load carrying capabilities. It's still a very safe structure for all travelers."
During a short period prior to the ALDOT's work in 1997, school buses commuted from east to west and back without additional traffic flow by other vehicles.
A website with informatin on historic and notable bridges across the county, bridgehunter.com, listed ratings data about the Fitzpatrick.
Traffic on the Benjamin Fitzpatrick in 1941
Photo by Horace Perry
Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History
Deck Condition Rating: Fair (5 out of 9)
Superstructure Condition Rating: Poor (4 out of 9)
Substructure Condition Rating: Fair (5 out of 9)
Appraisal: Structurally Deficient
Sufficiency Rating: 6.0 (6 out of 100)
In comparison, the Bibb Graves Bridge in Wetumpka, built in 1931, rated slightly better with satisfactory and fair numbers in comparable categories. It is "functionally obsolete." The bridge accommodates approximately 9,000 travelers daily.
The "structurally deficient" tag puts Tallassee's bridge among 100 plus in Alabama that "have one or more structural defects that require attention." The status does not indicate the "severity of the defect but rather that a defect is present." There are about 1,000 bridges statewide that are classified as "functionally obsolete" meaning they are "no longer by design functionally adequate for their tasks."
"(Structurally deficient) is probably not the best wording," Kirk noted. "With the inspections every year, we take care of that bridge, as well as all of our bridges in maintaining them."
The most eye-popping grade for the Fitzpatrick is its sufficiency rating of 6 on a scale of 100. According the National Bridges website; bridge sufficiency indicates a "bridge's fitness for the duty that it performs." The lower the number, the more insufficient the bridge.
Spectators on the bridge during last month's mill fire
"Sufficiency Rating describes a bridge's "Structural Evaluation, functional obsolescence and its essentiality to the public," the national bridge inventory database cited. "A low sufficiency rating may be due to structural defects, narrow lanes, low vertical clearance or any of many possible issues."
As for getting a second bridge or replacement bridge in the near future, Tallassee is not on the ALDOT's priority list.
"A large part of that is the funding," Kirk added. "ALDOT's working on a limited amount of funds. To build a bridge, it's expensive."
Locals, if given a preference, hope for a second bridge and preserving the Benjamin Fitzpatrick by reducing the daily traffic and loads with an alternate route across the Tallapoosa. That would be a decision of ALDOT which maintains the state highway and the structure.