Horace King: A Bridge-Building Life
I N 1989, when the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in- ducted its first honorees, the list included Horace King, an
African-American architect, contractor, and engineer who spent the
first 39 years of his life as a slave in
the antebellum South. By virtue of
his integrity and skill, King gained
the respect of Southerners, black
and white, and became a prolific
bridge builder whose work is still
Born into slavery in South Carolina in 1807, a mulatto with European, African, and Catawba Indian ancestral roots, King began
life with seemingly few opportunities for material success. He had
at least one advantage, however.
He had a natural aptitude for the
construction trade. Little is known
about his early years, but he must
have learned carpentry as a young
man, perhaps from his first master
or from his father, Edmund.
King also had the good fortune
to live at a time of innovation in
American bridge building. Inventors were competing to patent standardized truss designs that could be
adapted for use all over the country.
The first bridge to appear in Columbus, Georgia—
then a new town at the navigational head of the Chat-
tahoochee River—was known as the City Bridge or
Dillingham Street Bridge, top, and it opened in 1833.
Its success cemented the reputation of its design-
er, Horace King, above, an African-American archi-
tect, contractor, and engineer who spent the first 39
years of his life as a slave in the antebellum South.
Among the most popular of those
designs was the Town lattice truss,
which was patented in 1820 by a
Connecticut architect named Ithiel Town. When a trio of investors
set out to build a Town lattice truss
over the Pee Dee River in King’s
hometown of Cheraw, South Carolina, they may unknowingly have
inspired his career.
As explained by King’s biographers John S. Lupold and Thomas
L. French, Jr., in Bridging Deep South
Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace
King (Athens, Georgia: University
of Georgia Press, 2004), he probably did not work on the original Pee
Dee River span, but he must have
watched the project with interest.
The bridge type was still relatively new, and Town himself visited
Cheraw in 1824 to make sure the
structure was being built properly.
Just two years later a flood destroyed the Pee Dee River crossing.
King may have been employed on
the 1828 reconstruction project.
He must have paid close attention,
for the Town lattice truss was his
bridge of choice throughout his
Another man who is likely to
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 Civil Engineering SEPTEMBER 2012