This remarkable story about a defining moment in my personal history was written by Christine Bonham. daughter of my very good friend and visionary, Dave Fankhauser.
Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. Melody Beattie
It was that kind of ideal that drove Tom Cormier to build the Telliquah covered bridge in Tellico Plains, Tennessee back in the early 2000's. He had a vision for the future, but at the same time wanted to honor the past.
Photo by Peter Michael Photography
Although there is quite an abundance of history in East Tennessee, in the small town of Tellico Plains there is a particularly rich heritage of the Cherokee Nation as well as loggers and wagoneers. Mr. Cormier had an idea that building a bridge would be more than just physical, it would also be a metaphor linking the past to the present.
Years ago, a bridge stood on the very same spot, but time and weather eventually led to its demise. Called the “Submarine” Bridge, it was how much of the local logging and iron industries got from one side of the Tellico River to the other. Along with the economic fortunes of Tellico Plains as the iron and logging industries suffered, the original bridge fell into decline and eventually washed out.
Then, in the mid to late 1990's several residents, both old and new, envisioned showcasing the area's natural beauty, but without the big box retail chains that sometimes accompany progress. Instead, residents like long time Mayor Charles Hall and newcomer Tom Cormier wanted to grow the town by featuring its abundant natural beauty and history.
Because the Tellico River was central to the past, starting with the Cherokee Indians, the idea to build a bridge, spanning old and new, was born.
Years before East Tennessee was settled by frontiersman, the Cherokee Nation called the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains home. And once a year, Tellico Plains – derived from the Cherokee name Telliquah – was the gathering site for all the tribes of the Nation. Each summer, Cherokee families came from near and far to gather. They set aside their differences and rivalries, and much like our modern Olympics, held games with each other. They fished, they feasted, and they came together as one strong family.
Fast forward a few decades, and Tellico Plains and the river had become known more for its logging than for summer games. Residents wanted to connect the town to Robbinsville, NC so that visitors and natives alike could enjoy the spectacular views afforded from the Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee side, and the Nantahala National Forest on the North Carolina side. Inspired by TV westerns of the 1950's, some locals came up with the idea of starting a wagon train to bring attention to the area. The thinking was that the wagon train would induce Congress to fund and build a national scenic highway, which had always helped grow local economies where others had been built.
It ultimately took about 30 years until the 55-mile Cherohala Skyway opened in 1996, becoming the 21st national scenic highway in the United States.
Relatively new to the area, Mr. Cormier began developing property in the town and along the river. After building homes on both sides of the river, there was a need to bring the land and cabins up to code for a new generation, so a new bridge was essential. A new bridge would also symbolize the connection between the historical Tellico Plains and riverside, and the current Tellico Plains – ready for a new century and the economic boost from the Skyway.
A Yankee, Mr. Cormier wanted to highlight the gentle cascades of the Tellico River by designing something familiar to most New Englanders – a covered bridge. New England bridges were covered to protect the wooden trusses from harsh weather, and although the Telliquah Bridge has trusses of steel and concrete & stone supports, a covered bridge would also be a nod to the logging heritage of the area. Then too, covered bridges are few and far between, and becoming rarer with each passing decade. This bridge was built to last as well as be a showpiece for the town's tourism industry.
After many years of planning with local businesses and residents, and reaching out to the Cherokee Nation, the bridge was finally finished in 2006. When it was completed, a special dedication ceremony was held on the bridge itself, to celebrate the new dawn of Tellico Plains. Representatives from the town's history and future were on hand – chuckwagons, riders on horses, state and local congressmen and assemblymen, mayors, residents, and even a Cherokee Chief, Mark Brown, came from North Carolina to give a blessing in the Cherokee language.
These days, like Bald River Falls and the Cherohala Skyway, the Telliquah Bridge is one of Tellico Plains' most beautiful and recognizable attractions. Standing guard over the rolling river, thousands of tourists stop each year to photograph the bridge. It's perhaps even the most photographed bridge in the state of Tennessee. Like Neyland Stadium, World's Fair Park's Sunsphere and the Great Smoky Mountains, the Telliquah Bridge is an icon of East Tennessee.
An icon that is unmistakably a bridge between the past and the future.