The concept was to disrupt the rail-based supply line of the Confederacy. Union Gen. William T. Sherman ultimately decided to call the plan off, but that message didn’t reach all the men waiting to burn the bridges. And that is how the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad bridge over the Holston River at what is now Bluff City went up in flames.
Today, the bridge’s large stone piers remain. Until last weekend, if you were new to the area or just passing through, you’d have no way of knowing that story unless you stopped and asked someone. Tourists traveling through the region wouldn’t have known to come looking here for that bit of history.
Thanks to 16-year-old Lucas Triplett, the story now is told on a Civil War Trails marker located at Bluff City’s Riverfront Park. Triplett designed the sign, wrote the narrative, and suggested its location — giving its readers a clear line of sight to the old bridge piers — to Civil War Trails officials and the Bluff City Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Triplett completed the project as work toward Eagle Scout status with the Boy Scouts of America.
A dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the marker was held Friday.
Triplett thanked all of the officials who helped him along the way as well as his scout masters and fellow Boy Scouts Luke Herndon and Lucas McCraw, who helped construct the marker’s shelter.
“I chose this project because I believe history needs to be preserved and preserved accurately,” Triplett said. “And I felt like I could make a difference with this. Earlier today we inguarurated our 45th president of the United States. This is an opportunity to look ahead at the future, with hope and enthusiasm — and look back at the past and reflect on what happened.”
Drew Gruber is director of the Civil War Trails program, which he said now covers five states, 1,550 sites, and includes 620,000 square miles — a feat he thinks should qualify the program as the “largest open-air museum in the world.”
“Tourism, and especially history, is alive and well here in Tennessee,” Gruber said, noting that the “Burning Bridges” marker designed and put in place thanks to Triplett’s efforts is the 378th such marker in the state.
The Civil War Trails program has an extensive marketing campaign, providing maps of markers to tourists in general and particularly to those seeking information on Civil War sites.
“Thanks to this boy here today, Bluff City is now on those maps that make their way to AAA centers, to individuals who request information about Civil War sites, to Japan, Germany, France and all through Europe,” Gruber said. “They’re fascinated with the American Civil War.”
And the average age of visitors to Civil War Trails sites is close to Triplett’s age, Gruber said.
They might not even be driving yet, but they often drive their family’s choice of travel destinations or stops along the way.
“When they get to these sites, they want to experience something they can’t get at home. ... They want to experience a unique landscape — something they can’t get on the Internet. This is the future of tourism ... people Lucas’s age,” Gruber said. “Lucas has built for you a very beautiful interpretive sign that is very evocative. The first sentence makes you look up at the piers of the railroad bridge.”
With visitors comes economic impact, Gruber said.
Gruber said he and others with the program thought Triplett’s initial narrative for the marker would benefit by the addition of a photograph, so they added one and sent a mock-up to Lucas.
“He calls and says, ‘It’s a really great picture, but it’s the wrong bridge,’ ” Gruber said with a laugh. “That’s the dedication we got out of this young man and it’s quite impressive.”
Gruber said Civil War Trails markers are not meant to be commemorative. They don’t memorialize either side in the conflict.
“It is purely interpretive,” he said.
Bluff City Mayor Irene Wells said she and the rest of the BMA were impressed with Triplett from the get-go.
“We’re really excited about the dedication of the Civil War Trails marker,” Wells said. “He came to our board meeting last February to request that this monument be put down here at the boardwalk and pavilion area. He was very organized. Our board was very impressed with him. We are happy that the marker ended up here at our park.”
Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism Director Shelia Steele Hunt said Triplett visited the archives numerous times and was a top-notch researcher.
“He was very adamant about getting it right. I am very proud of him,” Hunt said.