One of the very first historical places I visited when I moved to The Shoals was The Old Railroad Bridge which connects Lauderdale and Colbert counties over the flowing Tennessee River. Construction began in 1832 making The Old Railroad Bridge the oldest bridge site in Alabama. Take a walk with me over this glorious old bridge steeped in history and natural beauty!
The Old Railroad Bridge is owned by a nonprofit organization called The Old Railroad Bridge Company. In the two years I have lived here, they have worked to replace slats on the bridge, held clean-up days, and most recently added two permanent bathrooms and a rock path. All that to say this is a beautifully cared-for Alabama landmark! Their website shares the rich, detailed history of the bridge too. Admission is free and you can walk the bridge anytime between sunrise and an hour after sunset.
This gorgeous image was taken by local photographer Hannah Sumner of Journey Steps Photography.
I have included some tips for getting to the Old Railroad Bridge at the end of this post because it is a little tricky if you have never visited before.
Once you arrive in the parking lot for The Old Railroad Bridge you will see two short trails. Both will take you to the bridge. The upper trail is the gravel trail leading from the newly built bathroom facilities. This gives a great view of the actual railroad that once occupied the upper part of the bridge. You must descend a few steps to reach the pedestrian bridge below so if you need handicapped accessible options be sure to take the lower trail from the parking lot.
The lower trail is paved and is a descent under the beautiful trees and wild plants that grow in the forest. It is shaded and you can begin to feel the breeze from the water.
Walking The Old Railroad Bridge
Once you arrive either from the steps of the upper gravel trail or the paved lower trail you are first greeted on your left by a beautiful mural painted on the wall. This is one of the many murals that are part of the Alabama Mural Trail. You can find more on the Railroad art by visiting the Public Art Archives too.
On your right, you will see a map of the Muscle Shoals TVA Reservation walking trails that run along the river and through the beautiful forests. (Some of these can be quite tough so plan ahead if you want to explore the trails!) There are steps that descend down to the river’s edge. I do recommend following this one trail down at the river for a bit to see all the beautiful woodland scenes and then make a U-turn to return back to the railroad tracks. This short trail is gorgeous and kid-friendly. If it is spring or summer you may want to apply your bug spray!
Next to the TVA map is the placard sharing the rich history of The Old Railroad Bridge. Worth a quick read to make the most of the history you will soon be walking across!
As you begin your walk over the bridge, the cool wind off the water immediately hits you! This is great in the hot summers but can be jarring in the wintertime. The slats you are walking on were once the pedestrian bridge that allowed people, wagons, and livestock to cross the river. Looking above you can see the original railroad ties that ran the trains across the river. The ties above give partial shade also.
The 1,580-foot walk down the bridge gives a breathtaking view on your right of Pickwick Lake, the Singing River bridge, and even Wilson Dam. On your left, you can see The O’Neal bridge and its beautiful arches-another symbol of the Shoals. Even though the traffic is crossing the bridge you are not acutely aware of the noise.
Look down at the water and you can see the currents swiftly passing and water birds diving down for their next meal. Depending on the time of day with your visit, you may share the walk with other families, newly engaged couples taking picturesque photos, or even joggers (what a lovely place to exercise!)
Nearing the end of the bridge you may have the luck of seeing a barge coming up or down Wilson Lock. Their size never ceases to amaze me! When the bridge was first built, the end was home to a drawbridge that moved up and down allowing the larger boats to pass easily. Now you will see the large cylinder markers separating the bridge from boats that travel the lock and the very end of Seven Mile Island. Seven Mile Island hosts trees, large rocks, and much wildlife.
At the end of the bridge, you will see locks fastened to cables with the names of lovers inscribed on them, and what locals have dubbed “The Panty Tree.” Yes, that is right. If you happen to have a spare pair of undies with you, many will give it a fling hoping for it to land on the tree. There are also bras, Mardi Gras style beads, and sometimes pairs of shoes hanging.
Take a moment and enjoy the ever-changing views before you turn back…the barges, the wildlife, the fast-moving water, and the fisherman speckling the river around you. They are taking advantage of the rich fishing waters the Shoals has to offer! If you can time your visit with the sun setting you are guaranteed to see the most amazing colors!
The Walk Back
As you walk back from your visit to The Old Railroad Bridge, consider the fact that this is the oldest bridge in Alabama. It has been visited by at least 2 destructive tornadoes in its lifetime, been burned during the Civil War, and connected people and communities for almost 2 centuries! While no ghosts have been officially reported (the bridge closes an hour after sundown!) some have reported hearing the rumble of train wheels on the overhead rails!
I can imagine the people traveling by train, wagon, or on foot to run their errands, visit loved ones, and conduct business enjoying much of the same sights that I am in that moment. This bridge has connected The Shoals and so many other communities for centuries and because of the care and maintenance it has received will continue to do so for a long, long time!
Ready to Visit The Old Railroad Bridge? Here is How You Get There!
The Old Railroad Bridge is easily seen as you drive over the Tennessee River via Florence’s beautiful O’Neal Bridge, but getting to the Railroad bridge can be a little tricky. The address is 2100 Ashe Blvd, Sheffield AL 35660. If you input “The Old Railroad Bridge Co, Inc” into Apple Maps, it will take you very close to the bridge but not directly to the parking lot. It is best to enter the exact address in your GPS to get there. You may enter through the long drive of Ashe Blvd hidden behind trees or cut directly uphill to a medical office and other buildings then drive down to the Old Railroad Bridge parking lot.
Here is a map with a Google Earth image of the area around the bridge that may help. Some updates have been made to The Old Railroad Bridge Parking Area since this satellite image was taken.
The Old Railroad Bridge is the perfect combination of peace, fresh air, moving water, and history. Do you have a place like that in Alabama? I would love to hear about it!