Downtown Augusta’s Archibald W. Butt Memorial Bridge is not just another historic landmark.
It tickles tummies with its steep arch and captivates motorists with its gilded lions and Tuscan-style columns.
Most importantly, historians say it honors one of the city’s most famed native sons, a former Army major who died after delivering a message to Pope Pius X for President William Howard Taft when the ship he booked for the trip home – the Titanic – hit an iceberg.
“It’s a modern-day marvel,” Tom Robertson, the president of Cranston Engineering Group, said of the bridge, which observes its 100th anniversary today. His firm has helped the city with several Butt Bridge restoration projects in the past two decades.
The anniversary is prompting a reappraisal of the landmark.
Though some historians and engineers, including Robertson, say the bridge has aged well despite several attempts to demolish it, others feel its iconic features need a makeover.
Chipping and fading cover the masonry and the eagles atop the columns, panes on its glass globes have been broken and one of its four light fixtures is missing altogether.
The deteriorating features heighten cries for the city to move quicker with plans to reinforce the bridge’s concrete deck, adjust its configuration for bike lanes and restore the handrails, columns, sculptures and lighting fixtures on the state’s first memorial bridge.
Augusta Assistant Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell said funding has been secured for the project and that construction should begin in nine months.
Historians say once the project is completed in 2015, it’s incumbent on the community to pass the bridge – “intact and well maintained” – to future generations.
“We have a responsibility to those who came before to preserve the best they had to offer (and) to use it as a guidepost for our own time,” said Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell, the director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History and historian in residence at Georgia Regents University. “Just as what monuments we choose to erect in our town reflect on us, what we choose to preserve also says something about our own values, what we think is worthwhile in the world.”
After Butt died on the Titanic, giving up his lifeboat seat and helping women and children off beforehand, Augusta residents began to think of ways to memorialize him, Caldwell said.
By June 1912, she said, they decided on making a new bridge over the Augusta Canal at the end of Greene Street into a memorial bridge for Butt.
No record or plans are on file for the bridge, but Robertson said construction was completed by Concrete Engineering Co. of Birmingham, Ala., in 1914 for $89,229 – $60,000 more than original cost estimates.
Caldwell said the community raised the funds for the four decorative light poles and two sets of concrete lions on both ends of the bridge, each of which was designed by the New York’s W.W. Leland Co.
With bad weather April 14, the date construction was complete, the dedication was held the next day on the anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. It involved many Augustans and former President Taft.
Taft said in his remarks that the bridge would “remain forever to record the story of his (Butt’s) highest duty, nobly done.”
The Rev. Ashby Jones, who was chosen by the Memorial Association to speak, said, “A memorial is an inevitable revelation of a community’s sense of values … a gauntlet thrown at their feet, daring them to do their best.”
The bridge’s future has been threatened more than once in the past century.
In the 1970s, it was targeted for demolition when engineers proposed draining the canal to make way for an expressway, said Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta.
In 1994, it received attention through Augusta’s “Save Our Butt” campaign.
Complete with bumper stickers and a legal defense fund, the campaign rallied to keep the bridge intact when a $15 million road project seemingly put the landmark at risk to relieve traffic snarls along 15th Street by building a new span around the existing bridge.
A stalemate ensued until 1998, when the money set aside for the project was shifted to build a new bridge at St. Sebastian Way instead.
“Our landmarks need to be preserved because they are our identity.” Montgomery said. “Without them, we kind of lose that identity and our self-respect.”
Cassell said the overpass, listed in “fair condition” on the federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory, will be honored.
“It will be here another 100 years,” he said. “We’re hoping when construction is done, it will remind people this bridge is a show piece for our city.”