Part 1 – The Bridge Builder
As a white child of the Jim Crow South, I probably have little right to opine on Black greatness. But during Black History Month, I keep thinking about someone I have admired since I learned his story when I moved to Albany. He is seldom mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. But he and I are kindred spirits even though he was black, and we were born nearly one hundred fifty years apart.
We both became Masons when we lived in Ohio—he in Oberlin and me a few miles to the West in Toledo. We both love to build things—I build furniture and he built bridges. And we both love our mules. He once sued the Federal government to try to recover some mules the Union Army “requisitioned” from him during the Civil War.
According to the Alabama Heritage website of the University of Alabama, Horace King was born in South Carolina on September 8, 1807. Little is known of his early life, but he appears to have acquired considerable knowledge and skill as a master carpenter and bridge builder. He was a type of slave known as a craftsman.
Craftsman slaves had specialized and highly sought-after skills. They were carpenters, blacksmiths, and teamsters and they were often hired out by their owners to make money. Usually, their earnings went to the master, but some craftsmen were allowed to keep some of their money and perhaps even work unsupervised. A few even set their own wages and arrange their own jobs. Horace King became one of these.
He was purchased when in his early 20s by John Godwin, the son of a prominent South Carolina businessman. Godwin was a builder who learned the bridge-building innovations of Connecticut architect Ithiel Town. Town’s design, which he had patented in 1820, was called the “Town Lattice Truss”. It was an entirely new system of wooden framework that could be erected using inexpensive common sawmill lumber and the labor of any carpenter’s gang.
The system used upright, two-by-ten, rough-cut planks along the walls of the bridge that were set at an angle in a crisscross pattern. The boards were fastened where they crossed with a couple of two-inch diameter, wooden pegs called “tree nails”. This allowed a span of a little over a hundred feet before the structure needed support from below, usually in the form of a stone tower or pier. A roof added structure to the bridge and protected the wooden framework from rot. Much of the assembly occurred in a field nearby where the wall boards could be fastened together while flat on the ground. The wall sections were then transported to the job site and erected—an early example of prefab construction.
It is likely that John Godwin and his slave, Horace King, became acquainted with Town’s innovative truss design at a construction site in South Carolina because both Godwin and King were familiar with the Town Lattice Truss before they left South Carolina for Columbus, Georgia in 1832.
John Godwin, doing business as John Godwin, Bridge Builder, had submitted a bid to construct the first public bridge over the Chattahoochee River. His bid was accepted, and Godwin and King began work in May 1832. In July they advertised in the Columbus Enquirer for stone masons to work on the piers of the bridge and by August the project was well underway. When completed in 1833, the nine-hundred-foot-long covered bridge earned Godwin and King reputations as master bridge builders and work began to flow their way.
Apparently, from the beginning of their relationship, Horace King was more of a junior partner in Godwin’s company than a slave. Godwin developed proposals and King supervised construction. In addition to building bridges, King spent much of the 1830s and 1840s working on the buildings and houses that the Godwin firm built around Columbus and Girard (now Phenix City), Alabama, where they had taken up residence. King’s ability to supervise massive construction projects and to elicit superior workmanship from mixed gangs of laborers, both slave and free, impressed some of the most successful businessmen in the South.
One of these men was Robert Jemison, Jr., of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jemison was a lawyer and state senator who owned a large and well-organized network of interrelated businesses that included a stagecoach line, a turnpike and bridge company, and extensive sawmill operations. In the early 1840s, Jemison began contracting with Godwin for bridges in Alabama. Horace King supervised the construction. After several joint ventures with Godwin and King, Jemison wrote a testimonial to Godwin in 1845 that praised King’s “style and dispatch” and “the impressive manner in which [King] has conducted himself.”
As King’s fortunes rose, however, those of his master declined. By 1846 Godwin had suffered a series of financial setbacks. Realizing that King could be taken from him to settle debts with his creditors, Godwin arranged with Robert Jemison to petition the Alabama General Assembly for King’s release from slavery. After Godwin posted the required $1,000 bond Jemison succeeded, and on February 3, 1846, Horace King became a free man.
A few years later, King was contracted to build a bridge across the Oconee River in Milledgeville, Georgia. He set up his prefab operation and began the project, but a disagreement arose over payment for the bridge. When King and his employers were unable to come to terms, what happened next seems extraordinary to me and is, perhaps, an indication of Kings character and resolve.
Horace King, a black man doing business in the pre-Civil War South, walked out on his white employers. He loaded the timbers, lattices, and other bridge materials onto railroad flatcars and moved them to another project. An enterprising, South Georgia businessman had heard all about Horace King and was anxious to acquire his services. The man was Nelson Tift, who wanted to build a bridge across the Flint River in Albany, Georgia.