Spanning the deep limestone gorges carved over eons by the winding Kentucky River, the bridges that traverse these palisades are feats of both human ingenuity and audacious spirit. Erected during an era where the expansion of the railroads and roadways vied with the natural world, these structures stand as a testament to the Gilded Age’s industrial prowess and the Good Roads Movement.
During a week in the early fall, I traveled extensively across the Bluegrass region to photograph some of the most distinguished bridges over the Kentucky River. My journey included visits to Camp Nelson Bridge, High Bridge, Young’s High Bridge, and the Tyrone Bridge.
The original Camp Nelson Bridge, a covered bridge masterminded by designer Lewis V. Wernwag, was built in 1838 and at 300 feet, it ranked as one of the longest covered bridges worldwide at the time. During the Civil War, it stood as the only bridge crossing that section of the river and served as a pivotal connection point for both the Union and Confederate forces. The strategic importance of Camp Nelson made the bridge a target, with a hidden Federal artillery position in Jessamine County occasionally aiming for the structure. Later on, the bridge suffered damage when a truck compromised the integrity of its deck. Subsequent repairs by an individual named Louis Bower significantly weakened the bridge, ultimately leading to its condemnation by the state Highway Department.
This led to the construction of a new bridge made of steel and concrete by the Mt. Vernon Bridge Company, which was opened in 1928. The opening ceremony attracted over 1,000 people on March 10, with Judge H. G. Turner presiding over the event. In an extraordinary link to the past, Cassie Harris, who had been present at the dedication of the original bridge 90 years prior, led a procession of cars across the new bridge. There was a desire to preserve the historic Camp Nelson Covered Bridge, potentially repurposing it as a scenic point of interest beside the newly opened Daniel Boone Lodge. Despite these hopes, the bridge was left derelict and was ultimately torn down in 1933.
Efforts for a modern replacement began in 1964, with plans for a high-level, four-lane bridge, but the challenging terrain complicated the selection of a suitable site for both the bridge and its approaches. The groundbreaking ceremony for this new structure eventually took place in 1970, with the Nashville Bridge Company among the contractors involved in its construction. The new Camp Nelson Bridge was completed and opened to traffic in May 1974.
High Bridge was a feat of engineering that revolutionized transportation and trade in its era. The original plan, proposed by the Lexington & Danville Railroad, envisioned a wire suspension bridge designed by John A. Roebling, who was also the mastermind behind the Brooklyn Bridge. However, financial difficulties coupled with the onset of the Civil War put a halt to this plan. It wasn’t until 1876, with the Cincinnati Southern Railway now overseeing the project, that construction resumed. The railway company appointed S. Shaler Smith of the Baltimore Bridge Company, Maryland, to lead the construction. Smith opted for a cantilevered Whipple deck truss design, a more robust solution to accommodate the increasingly heavy locomotives, moving away from Roebling’s original suspension concept.
High Bridge officially opened in 1877, stretching 1,125 feet in length and soaring 275 feet above the river, it was recognized as the United States’ first cantilever bridge. It not only became a landmark structure in North America but, for a time, it was also the highest railroad bridge on the globe. This title of the tallest bridge on the continent was held until 1888 when Young’s High Bridge, located near Tyrone, surpassed it in height.
During my hour-long stay at the bridge, it stood still and silent. The tranquility was eventually broken by the distant sound of a train horn as the sun began to set. Soon after, a Norfolk Southern mixed freight train rumbled across the bridge. A brief period of silence followed, and then the low growl of another diesel engine carried through the air. As dusk fell and the sun dipped below the horizon, another Norfolk Southern train, this one tailed by a heritage Lehigh Valley locomotive, thundered down the tracks.
The following morning presented a stunning scene. Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere brings with it the season of valley fog. As the days shorten and nights grow longer, the air has ample time to cool, often reaching the dew point. The cooler air, being heavier, descends into the valleys, and it is here that fog typically forms first. The presence of rivers enhances this natural phenomenon, as they contribute a continuous stream of water vapor to the air.
With an understanding of these conditions, I was determined to photograph Young’s High Bridge and the Tyrone Bridge at dawn, when the interplay of the rising sun and the fog would create a breathtaking vista.
Constructed in 1889, Young’s High Bridge is a Pratt deck truss bridge that served as a crucial link for the Louisville Southern Railway and later the Norfolk & Western Railway, spanning the Kentucky River near Tyrone. This bridge formed part of the Lexington to Lawrenceburg Division of the Louisville Southern Railway.
The bridge was named in honor of William Bennett Henderson Young, who was president of the Louisville Southern Railroad at the time. It gained recognition as the world’s highest single-span cantilever structure upon completion. Initially intended to stand five feet lower than the Cincinnati Southern’s High Bridge, the design was ultimately modified to exceed the latter by six inches, thereby securing the title of the tallest bridge structure in North America.
Despite the railroad’s initial optimism, the rise of automobiles led to a steady decline in passenger traffic, culminating in the cessation of passenger services over the bridge in 1937. Freight services maintained a consistent, albeit modest, flow until a derailment at the nearby Tyrone Power Station precipitated the closing of the spur in 1979. The Louisville Southern, absorbed by the Southern Railway in 1892 and subsequently integrated into the Norfolk Southern in 1980, faced dwindling use of the Lawrenceburg Division. This, combined with the prohibitive costs of maintaining the aged Kentucky River bridge, resulted in the suspension of the line between Lawrenceburg and Versailles in 1985.
Remarkably, throughout its operational history, Young’s High Bridge had never undergone significant strengthening, modification, or reconstruction. In its present life, the railway line east of the bridge still sees activity; it is utilized for excursions by the Bluegrass Railroad Museum and for railbike adventures. Additionally, the bridge itself occasionally serves as an exhilarating site for bungee jumping events orchestrated by an extreme sports company.
Situated nearby is the Tyrone Bridge, which allows US Route 62 to span the Kentucky River.
The Murphy Toll Bridge Act was enacted by the Kentucky state legislature in 1928, authorizing the State Department of Highways to construct highway bridges throughout Kentucky. The act also permitted the state to issue construction bonds, the costs of which would be recuperated through bridge tolls. Following this act, there was an anticipation that a toll bridge would be built to take the place of the existing Tyrone Ferry.
After the act was passed, planning for the new bridge commenced swiftly. By October 1929, the state had declared a proposal for a $25 million bond issue aimed at funding the construction of five major bridges within Kentucky, including one at the Tyrone location. Constructed between 1931 and 1932 by the Virginia Bridge Company, the Tyrone Bridge originally operated as a tolled crossing. This toll system remained in place until it was ceremoniously discontinued on August 25, 1945.
In 2006, the bridge was temporarily closed to facilitate a comprehensive $5.5 million rehabilitation. This extensive project involved the expansion of the bridge deck by two feet to accommodate wider traffic lanes, a complete replacement of the bridge’s surface, and the installation of new railing that matched the bridge’s original design.
In the crisp days of early fall, I traversed Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, camera in hand, to document the impressive bridges arched over the Kentucky River. From the historical breadth of the Camp Nelson Bridge to the engineering triumph of the High Bridge, and from the towering presence of Young’s High Bridge to the functional grace of the Tyrone Bridge, each crossing revealed a chapter of history where human ingenuity met the challenges of nature. These bridges, born from the industrial push of the Gilded Age and the progress promised by the Good Roads Movement, now stand quietly assertive against the changing leaves—a subtle reminder of past ambitions and the timeless flow of the river they span. My photographic journey captured not just the structural grandeur of these crossings, but also the serene beauty of a region where history is written in iron and stone against the canvas of the Kentucky landscape.