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Built in 1890, the Walnut Street Bridge was the first to connect Chattanooga, Tennessee's downtown with the North Shore. According to a plaque on the bridge, Edwin Thacher was the chief engineer for the bridge. The bridge's superstructure was assembled by the Smith Bridge Company of Toledo, Ohio, which was a prolific late 19th century bridge builder. The bridge's substructure was constructed by Neeley, Smith, and Company of Chattanooga. Most of the parts for the bridge were manufactured by Manly Jail Works of Dalton, Georgia and then shipped to the site by rail. The bridge's main spans are pin-connected Pennsylvania through truss spans. The top chord of these truss spans are configured in five sections, making the spans similar to the Camelback truss design. The bridge is historically significant as an extremely long and old example of its type; according to the Historic American Engineering Record: "The bridge was apparently the first non-military highway bridge across the Tennessee River."
A former Union officer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, William Andrew Slayton (1854–1935) was the stone contractor. Slayton lived in a stone house at 533 Barton Avenue, the house known for years by later inhabitants as the location of the "Little Art Shop." It is not known if he built this house, but similarly to Washington Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, he could overlook the project from his window. Many of the low stone walls in North Chattanooga are made up of the remnants of stones deemed too small for use in the piers. Subdivision plats in Chattanooga suggest that Slayton developed some areas to facilitate the hauling of materials from quarries in northeastern Alabama, and Slayton Street and Slayton Avenue are found near the current public library location on Broad Street. Slayton's obituary fails to note that there is no stone on his grave at Chattanooga Memorial near Red Bank, Tennessee.
The "county bridge", as the Walnut Street Bridge was once known as, connected the predominantly white city on the south side of the Tennessee River with the large black work force on the north side ("North Shore") in Hill City, a town that was annexed in Chattanooga in 1912.
Two black men were lynched on the bridge: Alfred Blount on February 14, 1893, was hanged from the first span for allegedly attacking a white woman; Ed Johnson on March 19, 1906, was hanged from the second span, also for allegedly attacking a white woman. Johnson's lynching initiated a court case (United States v. Shipp) that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The bridge was closed to motor vehicles in 1978 and sat in disuse and disrepair for nearly a decade. Repairs and structural modifications have been made to turn the bridge into what is now a pedestrian walkway. The Walnut Street Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 23, 1990. The 2,376 foot span is one of the world's longest pedestrian bridges and sits near the heart of a massive and recently completed urban renewal project. The bridge is well loved by local residents and very popular among tourists.