A view of the Natchez Trace Bridge off the side of Highway 96/ Photo by Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
Travelers driving through Franklin often pass the Natchez Trace Parkway, the storied 444-mile highway from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi.
The Double Arch Bridge, also known as the Natchez Trace Bridge, is one of many bridges that lie along the route owned and operated by the National Park Service.
Yet it stands out as one of the most recognizable structures in Tennessee, even featured on the popular Starbucks “You are Here” collection’s Nashville mug.
According to the National Park Service, the bridge won the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1995. In 1996, it won the Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence in Highway Design Award of Merit for the best highway improvements on publicly owned land.
The bridge itself stretches 1,572 feet across Tennessee Highway 96 and Birdsong Hollow in an unincorporated area west of Franklin and just south of the Davidson County line, suspended 155 feet above the ground.
In the past decade, more suicides have occurred on the Natchez Trace Parkway than in any other national park. For those in the know, the beauty of the bridge can be obscured by the tragedy shrouding it.
According to records from the National Park Service and Williamson County Sheriff, at least 30 people have jumped to their deaths from the Natchez Trace Bridge since 2000.*
In their most recently published document, the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network reports that only two percent of Tennessee suicides occur from jumping.
Williamson County is ranked low among counties with the highest suicide rates per capita: for 2016, 21 people died by suicide in the county. But in 2017, at least seven people have died by suicide at the Natchez Trace Bridge, a number that is well outside the norm for statewide statistics.
Community leaders in Franklin said suicide is often not covered by media due to worries about the area’s image and a fear of inspiring copycat attempts, yet many expressed concern that something be done to combat the problem.
“I think it does us a disservice if we avoid talking about it,” said psychiatrist Dr. David Chang, who has practiced psychotherapy in Williamson County since 2000. “It’s a terrible approach. I believe it needs to have more open and honest and public discussion.”
“Everybody’s gotten to a point where what’s enough is enough,” said Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long, whose deputies are first responders when an incident is reported.
Designed by award-winning engineer Eugene Figg, Jr., the bridge was the first pre-cast, segmental concrete arch bridge to be built in the United States. At the time, there was only one other like it in the world, in Germany.
“Gene Figg’s career was built on the premise that bridges should be not only functional and cost efficient, but also works of art,” reads a section on the architect in a book of memorial tributes from the National Academy of Engineering.
It was only through local influence that the bridge was even built.
Nancy Conway, now the vice-president, was then the president of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association, a nonprofit founded in 1934 to encourage the federal government to build the parkway.
“On the road plans, when they got to Highway 96 West, they were going to cut down hills on both sides,” Conway said of meetings with project supervisors. “I did not like that, because that was going against mother nature,” she said.
“That was the way the engineers had decided,” Conway continued. “I voiced my opinion, as usual.”
“They said, ‘And just what would you do?’ And I said, “I’d build a bridge from this hilltop to this hilltop.”
The project supervisors asked Conway who she thought could build such a bridge.
“I said Figg, he’s world renowned,” she said of the architect who had an office in Nashville.
Calvin LeHew, also a former president of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association and a well-known preservationist in Franklin, said he helped secure funding for the project.
As an orphaned teenager, LeHew was taken under the wing of Mrs. Albert Gore, attending university in Washington, D.C. and becoming involved in state politics. He also was Al Gore Jr.’s babysitter.
“As we started needing the money to do the parkway, I got Al and other senators to help with the funding,” LeHew said. “I told them this bridge would do more good for humanity than any fighter jet they would buy with the money.”
With federal projects, the bid process to find a contractor usually takes place in Washington, D.C. Conway asked that bids be put out to local companies.
Lockwood Construction Company, located on West Main Street, won one of the bids for the $2.6 million terminus interchange along the bridge.
County historian Rick Warwick said one concrete company, located on Downs Boulevard, manufactured the concrete pieces of the bridge, which were taken to the site and strung together with cables by PCL Construction.
Conway said the project was an economic boon to the community.
“Every mortar company in Williamson County was building the whole time.”
On June 4, 1996, Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Daniel Brown wrote to the United States Department of the Interior to inform them of the upcoming ceremony to celebrate the $14.3 million project’s completion.
“At the conclusion of this ceremony, only two sections of Parkway in Mississippi — totaling 25 miles under construction — remain to be built in order to finish the Natchez Trace Parkway from Natchez to Nashville,” he wrote.
Tony Turnbow, a Franklin attorney, now the president of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association, became involved with the organization in the late 1980s. He described the dedication ceremony that took place on June 22, 1996.
“One of the engineers spoke and said, ‘We’ve almost figured out how to get this to stand up,’” he chuckled.
Beneath the bridge, Amy Grant sang, before fireworks were shot off the bridge. Simultaneously, the 101st airborne infantry orchestra played “Stars and Stripes Forever. As Turnbow recalled, they didn’t time it quite right.
Previously a Tennessee senator, Vice President Al Gore was the event’s keynote speaker. He joked about LeHew being his first bodyguard, and presented him with an official Secret Service pin.
Finally, a series of vintage cars from the years 1934 and up went across the bridge.
“It was a major new landmark that we were dedicating,” Turnbow said. City and county leaders hoped that the addition of the bridge would help Franklin loom larger on the map.
They had no idea it was to become the site of many tragic deaths, beginning on Sept. 28, 2000, when 75-year-old Florence Warpinski became the first suicide victim to jump from the structure.
This is the first in a series of four stories on suicides in Williamson County from the Natchez Trace Bridge. Tomorrow, the Home Page will take an in-depth look at how suicide from the bridge has impacted one mother, and hear from a psychiatrist about mental illness in the county.
*The Franklin Home Page requested records from the National Park Service under the Freedom of Information Act. Review and comparison of the records with Williamson County Sheriff records revealed numerical discrepancies. The National Park Service admitted to an error in the first request, due to a system crash prior to 2010. Updated records were then sent and received.
Series Parts One through Four:
Warning signs of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
What to do:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
A free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.