Butt Memorial Bridge will soon see less traffic

Historic structure's future still secure

Nearly a century after one of Augusta's favorite sons lost his life on the Titanic, the historic downtown bridge built to honor his passing faces a working retirement of sorts.

Fifteenth Street traffic over the Butt Memorial Bridge is expected to decrease by about a third when work is completed on the new St. Sebastian Way Extension project later this year, according to Mike Keene, area engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

More than 14,000 vehicles cross over the bridge's steep rise every day, according to the latest traffic counts. But with a series of new ramps designed to divert traffic to Greene Street and a new bridge spanning the Augusta Canal, the Butt will soon carry less of the load.

The fact that it will see any traffic at all is an accomplishment to many.

The original state plans for the new downtown roadwork called for replacing or disconnecting the bridge from traffic. A later plan called for creating another bridge nearby, which would have essentially rendered the structure obsolete, said Erick Montgomery, the director of Historic Augusta.

In the mid-1990s, an outpouring of community support for the bridge saved it from such a fate.

Today -- 98 years after the Titanic hit an iceberg and began sinking in 1912 -- officials say its future is secure.

"Not that something couldn't come up down the road, but I think that everybody feels like it's pretty safe from any sort of highway department threat," said Ross Snellings, who founded the Butt Memorial Bridge Legal Defense Fund in response to plans to replace the bridge.

Snellings said changes to the St. Sebastian Way extension project -- made in part because of the outcry against replacing the Butt Bridge -- means it won't be harmed.

"Now that we're building St. Sebastian Way, the Butt Bridge will stay exactly where it is," Keene said.

Why do so many people care what happens to a 96-year-old structure with peeling white paint and a slope so steep drivers can't see the traffic stopped ahead of them? It's a one-of-a-kind historic treasure, Montgomery says.

It's Augusta's most ornate bridge -- with gilded lions, glass globes and masonry eagles adorning its sides. It also has a reinforced concrete arch, which was a relatively new technique at the time it was built, according to Tom Robertson of Cranston Engineering Group on Ellis Street.

"I don't know of another bridge like it," he said.

More than that, it is the only memorial to a true hero. The bridge's namesake, Maj. Archibald Butt, died while on special assignment from his friend, President William H. Taft.

The president sent Butt to take a special communication to the pope and was persuaded by a friend to book passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage, according to a story in The Chronicle .

Butt had always wished "to die in such a manner as to reflect credit upon the name I bear," and many feel he did just that by helping to get numerous passengers to the lifeboats, the story said. His body was never recovered.

In May 1912, Taft traveled to Augusta and delivered a tearful eulogy to about 1,500 people in the city's Grand Opera House. On April 14, 1914, he returned to Augusta to dedicate the Butt Memorial Bridge as a permanent honor to the major.

That alone makes the bridge a special case, Montgomery said.

"To remove it or to destroy it would be like destroying a tombstone."

Maj. Archibald Willingham Butt

- Born Sept. 26, 1865, in Augusta

- Worked as a newspaper correspondent in Louisville, Ky., and Macon, Ga.

- A novelist whose works included Behind the Lines, which ran in The Augusta Chronicle in July 1912.

- Personal aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

- Died April 15, 1912, on the Titanic after visiting the pope in Rome.

Sources: The Augusta Chronicle, www.arlingtoncemetery.net.

THE BRIDGE

- It's Augusta's most ornate bridge -- with gilded lions, glass globes and masonry eagles adorning its sides

- It has a reinforced concrete arch.

- It was dedicated by President Taft on April 14, 1914.

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