What’s In a Name?

About 200 yards below where the Withlacoochee River empties into the Suwanee lies the remains of the small town of Ellaville. This was once a thriving sawmill and manufacturing center owned by George Franklin Drew, Florida’s governor from 1877 to 1881. Very little evidence of the Drew home or the sawmill remains, but the place is still significant for another reason.

Three bridges cross the Suwanee River within sight of one another at this point. One carries the railroad, one carries U.S. 90, and one lies defunct, open only to foot traffic. This bridge, the Hillman Bridge, has perhaps the most interesting story of the three, because of the minor brouhaha that broke out over its name when it was first built in 1926.

Hillman Bridge over the Suwannee River at Ellaville (1927).

Hillman Bridge over the Suwanee River at Ellaville (1927).

The bridge was constructed during one of Florida’s biggest highway construction booms. By the 1920s, the concept of state-sponsored highway systems had caught on fully, and roads were snaking their way through every part of the region. The Old Spanish Trail, which roughly corresponded with the route of U.S. Highway 90 through North Florida, was quickly becoming a major east-west corridor. Road construction begets bridge construction, hence the need for a new bridge at the point where the Old Spanish Trail/U.S. 90 crossed the Suwanee between Madison and Suwanee counties.

During construction, the bridge was known as the “Hillman Bridge,” after Captain W.J. Hillman of Live Oak, a member of the State Road Department who had helped push for the appropriation to build the structure. A few months before the bridge was opened to the public, however, the State Chamber of Commerce took issue with the idea of naming it after Hillman permanently. Chamber officials argued that the state ought to take advantage of the Suwanee River’s power as a popular symbol of Florida and name the bridge either after the river itself, or after Stephen Foster. Foster, of course, had immortalized the Suwanee in his song “Old Folks at Home.” Naming the bridge for Hillman or Ellaville, the Chamber argued, would be about as distinctive to the average tourist as if the state named it “Bridge #1313.”

A group of motorists in Live Oak. Captain W.J. Hillman is in the white Cadillac at right (circa 1920s).

A group of motorists in Live Oak. Captain W.J. Hillman is in the white Cadillac at right (circa 1920s).

The Chamber’s concerns opened up a statewide press discussion of the subject. Some took the Chamber’s side, agreeing that Florida would benefit from making use of the Suwanee’s name recognition qualities. The Evening Independent played devil’s advocate, noting that another newspaper had spelled “Suwanee” two different ways in the same article. If the press could misspell it, the editor argued, so could tourists, and that might be counterproductive. Another group suggested the inscription over the bridge ought to pertain somehow to the supposed translation of the name “Suwanee,” which was believed to be “Water Beloved of the Sun God.”

The Hillman Bridge just over a year after it was completed. The swollen waters of the Suwanee River rush past below (1928).

The Hillman Bridge just over a year after it was completed. The swollen waters of the Suwanee River rush past below (1928).

When the bridge was officially dedicated in 1927, the Hillman name stuck. For added name recognition, the State Road Department prominently displayed a sign alerting motorists they were crossing the Suwanee River. The finished product came out to about 910 feet in length, constructed by R.H.H. Blackwell Company of East Aurora, New York at a cost of about $150,000. The bridge was abandoned in 1983 when a truck carrying an overheight load drove across the bridge and caught on one of the steel crossbeams, tearing it loose from the structure. The old span was already on the list for replacement, and the Florida Department of Transportation moved ahead with their plans. The new bridge opened in 1986.

Hillman Bridge, still open to foot and bike traffic (2014).

Hillman Bridge, still open to foot and bike traffic (2014).

Today, the bridge still stands, although it is restricted to foot and bike traffic only. The Florida Department of Transportation deeded it to the Florida Department of Natural Resources in 1986 after the new span opened. It remains one of the best extant examples of a Pratt metal-truss bridge in Florida.

The State Library and Archives of Florida hold a variety of records pertaining to the Florida Department of Transportation and the old State Road Department. Search our catalogs for more information!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

4 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. During my childhood, I crossed this bridge many, many times. Oh how I wish I could go back and relive some of those “good ole years.”

  2. This bridge and the bridge in Suwannee Springs are both beautiful. Hopefully they will be preserved for future generations.

  3. Remember it well, my grandfather (Mitchel Johnson) worked as a night watchman at the bridge during the 1948 flood.
    He rode a bicycle from Lee to get to his job as watchman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy