Why a perfectly good bridge wasn't hooked up to a road for ten years
A bridge over the Dan River in Eden looks like any old bridge. But its existence led to a farmer uprising, a fight over the legitimacy of government, and a case that's still taught in law school.
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In 1925, the Luten Bridge Company finished a gorgeous, three-arch bridge in Eden, North Carolina. It was, as one of the company’s vice presidents described it, “the finest bridge in [Rockingham] County.” It was meant to carry traffic over the Dan River. There was just one hitch. The bridge wasn’t hooked up to a road. At all. The concrete span itself was finished, but the ramps on either side hadn’t been built. On one side, the bridge nearly reached a cliffside. On the other side, the bridge’s deck hung way off of the ground.
It would stay that way for ten years.
The reason why has been largely forgotten by locals, but not by law students, many of whom learn about the bridge during their first year. The bridge has been closed to traffic for nearly 20 years, but it’s still there, because it’s become important in a new way. And, it really is a pretty bridge that, technically, shouldn’t even exist.
“It captures a lot of deep strains in American politics,” says Barak Richman, the Katharine T. Bartlett Professor of Law at Duke University. “At one point it was the symbol of everything that was wrong with the government. It was the most wasteful kind of government spending, and it was built upon the backs of people who really didn't benefit from it. But at the same time, the reason we're all talking about this is precisely because it was so wasteful and because it was so beautiful.”
A factory on one side, a railroad on the other
First off, let me introduce you to a guy named Col. Benjamin Franklin Mebane. A titan of industry. A political operator. A born salesman. “At a very young age he was able to take two big carriages of pickles and sold them in an afternoon,” says Richman. He was THAT GOOD.
In the early 1920s, Mebane (who, I should point out, is not the Mebane the the town of Mebane is named for) wanted to build a new factory on the north side of the Dan River in Eden. But there was a problem: The railroad tracks that he needed to ship everything were on the south side. The county was already building a bridge, but it was a mile-and-a-half away. To get to that crossing and then over to the railroad, Mebane’s drivers would need to wind through two small villages. That was going to be annoying. So Mebane asked the county to build him, basically, a bridge of his own at the spot where Fishing Creek dumps into the Dan. It was out of the way for the locals, but perfect for Mebane. County leaders said… no. “So he did what any enterprising entrepreneur would do,” says Richman. “He got engaged in politics.”
In 1922, Mebane went out and financed the campaigns of three men who were running for seats on the five-member Rockingham County Commission. They won! And in early 1923, what do they do? Why, the new three member majority voted to approve Mebane’s bridge. It was to cost $50,000, and that doesn’t include the $100,000 they’d need to build a road through a forest to connect to it. None of that sounds like an awful lot of money, but a hundred years ago, it was enough that the county had to raise property taxes to pay for part of it, and took out bonds at high interest rates to help finance the rest.
A Lesson: Never Make The Farmers Mad
“It's amazing to think about what happens next,” Richman says. What was that? Well, the farmers heard about it. They got pissed. “There was an enormous revolt. The specter of authoritarianism—of undemocratic oligarchy—was constantly being invoked,” Richman says. During the super hot summer of 1923, three meetings were held about the bridge. At one, 2,000 people showed up. One speaker invoked the “blood of our fathers.” Others made the point that this bridge clearly benefited only one really rich guy. At the time, Rockingham County was starting to industrialize with textile mills and tobacco factories, thanks largely to Mebane, but it was still largely rural, and the farmers knew that they’d bear the financial brunt of any big expansions. This one was too much for them.
At first, their anger held the commissioners at bay. But then, at the beginning of 1924, the county commission went ahead and hired the Luten Bridge Company to build the bridge. That’s when the threats of violence really started to dial way up. It was all too much for a guy named W. Franklin Pruitt. He was one of Mebane’s hand-picked commissioners, but he was also in his 60s and officially, he said his health was giving out. So in February, he turned in a letter of resignation to the county clerk. But! “Mebane hears about this,” Richman says. Later that same day, “Mebane finds him and convinces him to rescind his resignation. And this is where it gets interesting.”
No Tagbacks Allowed on the County Commission
The county clerk said it was too late: He’d already accepted Pruitt’s resignation. Plus, he already appointed a replacement: A guy who really hated this whole bridge idea. Immediately, the balance of power shifted on the county commission, and at their very next meeting, the commission cancelled the contract, nixed the road, and told the Luten Bridge Company to stop building the bridge. It sounds like a fairly straightforward affair, except for the fact that Pruitt would claim that he was actually still a county commissioner and the Luten Bridge Company should listen to him and not the new guy. This went on for eleven damn months.
The folks at Luten were confused. So, they just kept building the bridge and billing the county. The county stopped paying the bills. This went on until November 1924, when Luten sued Rockingham County. Basically, Luten’s argument was that they didn’t accept that the contract had been cancelled. But the real issue, Richman says, was this: “The bridge company didn't know who to listen to because the Luten Bridge Company didn't know who was in charge.”
The case wound its way through the court system until it ended up at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. That’s where Judge John J. Parker and his colleagues made a decision that ended up being foundational: If a government tells you to stop doing something, you have to stop doing it. You can’t just keep going and bill the government for the whole thing when you’re done. That’s the part that’s taught in law schools, but there’s another consequential part of that decision. Judge Parker also wrote that once a clerk accepts your resignation as an elected official, you can’t take it back. “That's one of the more foundational parts,” says Richman. “In government, you need to know who's in charge.”
The decision in Rockingham County v. Luten Bridge Co. was made in 1929. By then, though, Mebane had been dead for three years. Cars couldn’t cross the bridge (again, no road), but locals still used it. They tromped out there for picnics, dinners, and even dances. “My guess is it was also used by assorted teenagers for things that teenagers do,” adds Richman. In 1935, the state department of transportation took over ownership of the bridge, built the ramps and, at long last, hooked it up to a dirt road. That road was paved in 1968, and the single-lane bridge was open until it finally closed to traffic in 2003.
I drove out to see it myself a few years ago, and when I talked to some folks nearby, none of them had heard any of this story. They just saw what I saw: A stately old bridge that was covered in graffiti but still intact. So if you can’t drive across it, why is it still there?
The answer: The city of Eden had, at some point, hooked a large pipe on the side of the bridge to carry sewage to a treatment plant on the other side. Literally, it’s the one thing that’s keeping a perfectly good bridge from going to waste.
(NOTE: If this all sounds familiar, it’s because I put together a short episode of Away Message on it back in 2018. This sourcing for this story comes largely from my interview with Richman back then, as well as a North Carolina Law Review article he co-wrote about it. If you’re really into the context and legal history and want to know more about pretty much any tiny detail about this story, it’s worth taking the time to read the entire 72-page article.)