Nashville’s Shelby Street Bridge

“Give to the world the best you have, and the best will come back to you.” – John Seigenthaler

Nashville’s Shelby Street Bridge crosses the Cumberland River near the heart of downtown, just one block south of Broadway.  Built in 1907-9, it was originally called the Sparkman Street Bridge, as it connected Sparkman on the west side to Shelby on the east.  The 3,150 foot triple span bridge (about half that over water) was the first in America to use concrete trusses.

Sparkman Street Bridge, circa 1920

Sparkman Street was always a very short street (it now exists only as a short pedestrian mall, renamed Symphony Row – the rest obliterated by modern structures like the Bridgeman Arena where the NHL Predators play). So, the bridge was soon renamed Shelby Street Bridge.  Shelby Street (later upgraded to Shelby Avenue) is named after Dr John Shelby –  a mid-19th century Nashville postmaster and owner of much of the land east of the Cumberland back then, when the streets were laid out. It still exists on the east side of the river. But it now bends south as it approaches the river, to cross river over the newer, flashier Korean Veterans Bridge.

From the bridge’s high point you can fetch some breathtaking views of this rapidly modernizing city, as well as its history.  You can see the AT&T “Batman building.”  Nissan Stadium, where the Tennessee Titans play.  You can see “Honky Tonk Row.”  And one can see the site of old Fort Nashborough, now reconstructed,

Shelby Street Bridge, 2008

where John Robertson and James Donelson led a rugged group of Revolutionary War soldiers called “The Over Mountain Men” when founding the city, in 1779.

You can also get an unobstructed view of the Cumberland River, nearly 120 feet below – except for when the river runs high. Neglecting drag, an object dropped from here would hit the water at 60 miles per hour.


“Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be,
The Pains that are withheld for me.
I realize and then I see …”

In 1949 John Seigenthaler, aged 22, joined one of Nashville’s major newspapers, The Tennessean, as a journalist.  He had just completed three years of service in the Air Force.  He was assigned to the Police Beat and had a nose for a story.  In a few years he had earned the respect of all the staff, even the older gray beards. He did that while simultaneously studying literature and  sociology at Peabody College (adjacent to, and now part of, Vanderbilt University).

In 1953 Seigenthaler first gained national prominence when he tracked down someone in a famous missing person case.  The son of a local wealthy businessman had disappeared way back in 1931.  Six weeks later so did his secretary.  Coincidence? They were never found.  Never found, that is, until Seigenthaler tracked them down in Texas, 22 years later.  For his dogged determination, research, article and coverage he earned a National Headliner Award.

“… That Suicide is painless.
It brings on many changes.
And I can take or leave it if I please.”

There is nothing painless about suicide. It leaves holes and wounds.  In people’s lives.  Friends’ lives.  Acquaintances. Family – spouses, parents, children, nieces, nephews, cousins.  Holes in their hearts, minds and souls. Holes that last decades … the rest of their lives.

People choose this escape for many reasons, I suppose.  Mental illness and drug addiction.  And serious depression, which can result from anxiety, disgrace, social isolation, despondency, chronic pain, rejection, remorse or dysphoria. Some see it as an honorable exit. Or any combination of the above.  Those who succeed cannot answer any of our questions.

I know several people who’ve had friends and family members leave this way.  Their pain is immeasurable. Often devastated … and they are totally gutted.  Suicide is not painless – M*A*S*H’s famous theme song notwithstanding.

If you or anyone you know find yourself inconsolable and even remotely considering this, please talk to someone; or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It’s a free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

“That game of life is hard to play.
I’m gonna lose it anyway:
The losing card of some delay.
So this is all I have to say …”

In the late ‘50s Seigenthaler tried to bring corruption within the newspaper’s ranks to management’s attention, with little success. More than a little discouraged by this, and The Tennessean’s management in general, Seigenthaler took a break from his journalism career to work in the Kennedy administration in 1960 as an Administrative Assistant in the Justice Department.  In 1961 he was directly involved in trying to help the Freedom Riders get through Alabama with minimal violence.  In Montgomery, while representing Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and trying to help two Riders to safety, he was severely beaten and knocked unconscious by a police baton blow to the head.

While he was away, The Tennessean’s management team and style changed.  They were to become the hard-hitting team that Seigenthaler had imagined.  By 1962 he was back, and as editor.  Under him the Tennessean become famous for taking on corruption in many areas, labor issues (including Teamster corruption), civil rights, and even fixed elections. They won Pulitzer Prizes.

He also became a fierce defender of the First Amendment, founding the 1st Amendment Center in Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.  No slouch, he also went on to help found the newspaper USA Today, in the early ‘80s.  He remained active professionally and intellectually well into his eighties.

“…That suicide is painless.
It brings on many changes.
I can take or leave it if I please.”

On October 4, 1954, Nashville resident Gene Bradford Williams, age 55, was completely despondent over his pending divorce.  He was going to end his life by jumping from the Shelby Street Bridge.  He called the Tennessean, saying “send a reporter and photographer if you want the story.”

Seigenthaler hurried himself over to the bridge.  He walked out onto the bridge, soon cordoned off by police. He proceeded to talk with Williams for 40 minutes, slowly approaching him as the minutes wore on.  Finally, Williams had had enough.  As he climbed over the railing, announcing his farewell to the world, Seigenthaler was close enough to race the final few steps and grab his collar, just as Williams went over the side.  Seigenthaler held him until police could help get Williams back up onto the bridge.

At first Williams was angry.  “I’ll never forgive you.”  But he did.  Seigenthaler saved much pain that day.  Williams soon thanked him.  Just 20 days later, Williams wrote Seigenthaler.

Dear friend,
Inasmuch as I did say “I’ll never forgive you,” I feel I owe you an apology for said statement.
I also feel that I owe you eternal gratitude for saving me from the briny deep.

In 1992 the Shelby Street Bridge was deemed too aged for vehicular traffic and too uneconomical for restoration. In 1998 it was converted to a pedestrian bridge, and also put on the Register of National Historic Places, thus affording locals and tourists a peaceful, most wonderful view of the city, and a sense of its history.  Including the life and service of John Seigenthaler.

You see, for his service to the community, to journalism, civil rights, and the First Amendment – and for saving a man’s life –  the Shelby Street Bridge was renamed the John Seignethaler Pedestrian Bridge, shortly before his own death, in 2014.

“A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key.
‘Is it to be or not to be?’
And I replied, ‘Oh, why ask me?’ “

To John Seigenthaler (1927-2014), of Nashville Tennessee —  if you ask me: a brave man, indeed.

Plaque at east end of the Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Nashville, TN


Joe Girard © 2018

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  1. Short Bio:
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3. I don’t know how he pronounced his last name.  As a lifelong (failing) German language learner, I’d say it like “Z-EYE-gen-taller.”  Anyhow, that’s how his ancestors would have said it.  🙂


Mid century photo

One thought on “Nashville’s Shelby Street Bridge”

  1. Peggy Gutmann

    Very interesting Joe! I’m glad the name of the bridge honors this man.

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