Travel along the twisting blue highways of Eastern Kentucky enough and you’re bound to see them: picturesque and practical, old-fashioned and mildly terrifying. They’re a sight that’s out of the ordinary enough to make a traveler pause and take a few photographs along the side of the road.
They’re known as swinging bridges, and most of them were built by the people who use them, out of necessity, to reach their homes. As you probably can guess, there isn’t a lot of flat land available in the mountains to build a house, or even to park a mobile home. And with flat land being in short supply, sometimes it winds up on the other side of the creek from the road.
And so they built them, these swinging bridges, out of wood and concrete, and sturdy-looking cable. Built them of their own design, in locations of their own choosing, and often with the help of neighbors.
The one appears along Highway 7, outside of Hazard, in the neighborhood of Cornettsville and Ulvah, along the road to Whitesburg.
It’s a little unusual, I think, in that it has a name.
I didn’t realize it last week, but I’d seen this bridge before; more than 10 years ago, in fact, when swinging bridges were the subject of a story in the second season of Kentucky Life, a long-running magazine program for which I was series writer (and sometime segment producer).
At the time the host was Byron Crawford, who spent his career roaming Kentucky’s back roads in search of stories just like this for the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. If you watch the clip, you’ll notice the boyish enthusiasm Byron exhibits for bouncing across the bridge, imagining what it might be like to be a child whose little world includes such a marvelous thing.
As we drank in the mountain beauty surrounding the bridge, snapping photos and recording a little video for a short segment and story we were working on that day, we were greeted by a resident of the small neighborhood which relied on the bridge daily to cross the creek.
Impervious to the sway and creak of the Ben Salley Bridge, the man made his brisk way across the creek, through the gate, and down to the roadside where I stood.
“That’s my bridge,” he said, pointing to the sign.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Salley,” said I.
I was a bit worried he was going to run us off but he mostly just wanted to know what we were up to, and to chat a bit. He told us he’d built that bridge, and he wished the county would put up a more permanent structure and right of way. He was a war veteran, World War II, and thought he deserved it. I think he’s right.
He also told me that his wife had died of cancer, and they carried her for the last time across that bridge on a scooter much like the one he himself now used. He didn’t say if her final journey across the Ben Salley Bridge was before she departed this life, or after. Either case would have been difficult, I would think.
The late September sun was hot on the green water. Fall has only just begun to touch the mountains, but soon they’ll be ablaze with color — so much color that you’ll think you’re in another world, where the beauty just takes your breath away.
It is another world, Eastern Kentucky, where some of the things that city-dwellers take for granted, like Starbucks, are unknown, and other things, like swinging foot bridges, slow you down just long enough to pass the time of day with a war veteran or a new-found friend.