The old Naheola Bridge is a unique landmark in Alabama history. Until its closure to automobile traffic in 2001, it was one of only a few bridges in the world that accommodated rail, auto, and river traffic.
This vertical lift bridge was built In 1934 for the Meridian & Bigbee Railroad to transport rail traffic across the Tombigbee River between Choctaw and Marengo counties. The vertical lift span on the bridge was raised as needed to allow barge traffic to pass beneath.
In 1958, Marathon Southern opened a new paper mill on the Choctaw County side of the Tombigbee River. Many mill workers who lived in Marengo County had to travel long routes to get to their job because there was no highway across the Tombigbee at the mill. This problem was resolved by retrofitting the Naheola railroad bridge so that auto traffic could travel across the river on it. Creosote-treated railroad cross ties were placed beside the rails on the railroad tracks to allow auto traffic to straddle and travel along the tracks. Traffic lights were mounted at each end of the bridge to signal the auto traffic whether to stop or to proceed. The lights were necessary because the bridge was only wide enough for one-way traffic, and motorists could not see from one end of it to the other because of a curve near one end of the half-mile long structure. The lights were used to warn motorists of the presence of a train or when the drawbridge was raised to allow river traffic to pass underneath. Because of the bridge’s multi-use, the railroad hired bridge tenders who managed traffic twenty-four hours a day.
Traveling across the old Naheola bridge in a vehicle was always a memorable experience and it could be terrifying at times, especially at night when it was foggy or there was stormy weather. There was always an uneasy feeling crossing this old railroad bridge. The bridge was very narrow, and there was the curve that prevented seeing from one end of the bridge to the other. There were rails on each side of the bridge but were they tall enough to keep you from tumbling into the Tombigbee if there were an accident? When crossing the bridge, you would always hope that the green light was correct, and that there was not an approaching train or a raised drawbridge? The bridge was also old and rickety, and the rail cross ties on the bridge were bumpy and uneven. This did not help to calm your nerves when crossing the bridge. Crossing the bridge could be especially frightful in a large vehicle or on a motorcycle. A biker had to be very careful when making the half-mile journey across the bridge to prevent the tires on his motorcycle from falling into the crack between the rails and the cross ties.
In 2001, the Alabama State Highway Department began construction on a new highway bridge immediately south of the Naheola Bridge and auto traffic was discontinued on the railroad bridge. This ended the old Naheola Bridge’s unique claim to fame.
On September 16, 2021, the Old Naheola Bridge was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
The Nahoela Bridge is located beside the new highway bridge that’s across the Tombigbee near Pennington (32.237667,-88.015389 – Google Maps)
ADDITIONAL NOTE: The Naheola Bridge is also located near where the ill-fated Eliza Battle paddle steamer is thought to have sunk in the Tombigbee in 1858 when it was destroyed by fire. This was the greatest maritime disaster in Tombigbee River history. The disaster and its aftermath saw the Eliza Battle enter Alabama folklore as a ghost ship, with numerous purported sightings of the burning ship. In Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book of short stories, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, the “The Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee” is about the Eliza Battle tragedy. CLICK HERE for additional details about the ill-fated Eliza Battle.
Sources: 1) Choctaw County Historic and Genealogical Society; 2) Alabama Heritage Magazine, Number 135, Winter 2020, “The Naheola Bridge” by Stephanie L. Robertson.
The following video contains snapshots of the Naheola Bridge.