I can’t imagine a more unlikely pair of business partners. Horace King, the hard-headed former slave who walked out on his last project because of business differences and Nelson Tift, the hard-driving businessman who was, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “committed wholly to slave society”. King was probably still irritated at white people trying to take advantage of him on his last job. Tift was a slave owner who also came to the Albany bridge project with a thorn in his side. He was paying for the bridge out of his own pocket after he had failed to interest either the city or the county in the idea. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall at their first meeting!)
Born in 1810 to a Connecticut mercantile family, Nelson Tift followed his father into business and headed south. He moved around for a few years before he settled in Albany, Georgia in October 1836. Tift’s business acumen saw him speculating in land, operating a dry goods store and several mills, and acquiring the rights to operate a ferry and, later, a toll bridge across the Flint River.
It is worth noting that, even though he used the services of Horace King, a freed slave, Tift was deeply committed to the principles of slavery. He owned slaves himself and as a member of the Georgia legislature, he supported the reopening of the international slave trade (which had been prohibited by law since 1808) as a way to encourage ownership of enslaved people to all white Georgians. He died a wealthy man in 1891.
Little is apparently known about Horace King’s bridge across the Flint River, except that it was completed in 1858. Judging by the location of the Bridge House and its corresponding bank across the river, it must have been at least 300 feet across. A comparable bridge can be seen at Watson Mill Bridge State Park near Comer, Georgia. Watson Mill Bridge claims to be the longest covered bridge in the state, spanning 229 feet across. It was built in 1885, the year of his King’s death, by Horace King’s oldest son, Washington. He, of course, used Ithiel Town’s Lattice Truss and tree-nail system. At one time, according to the Georgia State Parks website, Georgia had more than two-hundred covered bridges; today, fewer than twenty remain. Most of them gave way to fire, flood, or the ravages of time on untreated wood.
After he left Albany, Horace King spent the rest of his long life as a prosperous builder and businessman. He died on May 28, 1885, at the age of 78, but his legacy goes far beyond his buildings. When his former owner, John Godwin died in 1859, his estate was insolvent. As a testimony to how much the Godwin children honored Horace King, they formally recorded in the Russell County Courthouse that “Horace King is duly emancipated and freed from all claims held by us.” They knew that as a former slave, King could be held accountable for their father’s debts.
King remained close to the Godwin family, helping Godwin’s son run the failing family business. In addition, King quietly provided for his former master’s family. According to one of King’s contemporaries, Godwin’s children “became [King’s] wards at his own option.”
But perhaps the most telling legacy of Horace King is a monument he purchased and erected on the grave of his former master. The inscription reads:
John Godwin Born Oct. 17, 1798. Died Feb. 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.
The monument bears the Masonic emblem, the square and compasses, which marks Godwin as a Mason. In fact, the monument is presented from one Mason to another.
Faye Gibbons notes in her 2002 book, Horace King, Bridges to Freedom, that two years after Godwin’s death, King was in Ohio visiting friends and seeking to join the Masons—something that was not allowed for a black man in the South. After he became a Mason, King obviously took to heart its principles of brotherly love, relief, and truth and he would have been especially concerned about the Masonic care of widows and orphans—even those of his former slave master.
I am fascinated by the character and resolve of this former slave, turned craftsman, turned business owner. Following the Civil War, King served two terms in the Alabama Legislature. He brought all five of his children—four sons and one daughter—into the business and formed the King Brothers Bridge Company. They went on to build courthouses, mills, public buildings, and, of course, hundreds of bridges. All the while, King cared for and supported the children of the man who once owned him.
Today, we may remember Horace King as what his contemporary Robert Jemison, called “the best practicing bridge builder in the South.” But to remember King simply as a builder of bridges sells the man far short. His greatest achievements may have been simply in his humanity.