Walnut Street Bridge: Chattanooga, Tennessee


Chattanooga's "pedestrian jewel" is not a trail, park, or plaza but the city's historic Walnut Street Bridge, the oldest and largest surviving truss bridge in the South and the first non-military highway bridge to span the Tennessee River.

Designated Area

The bridge spans the Tennessee River, connecting downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee Riverwalk with the city's North Shore District including Coolidge Park.

Hundreds of people gather on Walnut Street Bridge for Tennessee's premier wine-tasting festival. Photo courtesy David Homber.

Planning Excellence

Affording a stunning, 360-degree view of Chattanooga's downtown riverfront, the Walnut Street Bridge is used by residents and visitors virtually around the clock to stroll, jog, bicycle, skate, and dog walk. It also is the location for the annual "Wine Over Water" celebration held in September by Cornerstones, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, which has raised nearly $2 million through the event since 1994.

Built by the Smith Bridge Company in 1890 and opened to traffic a year later, the bridge remained open to vehicles until 1978 when it was deemed unsafe for further motorized use. The Tennessee Department of Transportation recommended demolishing the bridge, but Chattanooga's then-Mayor Pat Rose suggested another idea: use it for pedestrians only. Rose and Ron Littlefield, AICP, the city's Public Works Commissioner, kept the idea alive by hiring local architects Garnet Chapin and Andy Smith of The Riverworks, LLC, to develop a study for restoring the bridge.

Under the auspices of the not-for-profit organization Chattanooga Venture, a committee was formed to determine whether the bridge could and should be restored. Once it was determined a rehabilitated bridge could support pedestrian traffic, the local community rallied behind saving the bridge. Helping transfer the $2.5 million in federal funds originally designated for demolition to rehabilitation were former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts, former U.S. Representative Marilyn Lloyd and former Sen. Al Gore. Local fundraising efforts secured the additional $2 million needed to restore the bridge. Restoration of the 2,376-foot-long span began in 1991 and concluded two years later.

Celebrating the 20th year of its new lease on life, the Walnut Street Bridge continues to connect residents with their city, reminding them of their history, memories, festivals, and civic-minded, "can do" approach to community-wide undertakings.

Cyclists and pedestrians enjoy the beautiful views Walnut Street Bridge has to offer. Photo courtesy David Homber.

Defining Characteristics, Features

History and Planning

  • Built in 1890 by the Smith Bridge Company; opened to motorized traffic 1891
  • Closed to traffic (1978); Chattanooga City Commission votes to accept a modified project and begins studying reuse of bridge (1979)
  • Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan (1985) reiterates possibility of the bridge as an alternative transportation connection and catalyst for riverfront redevelopment
  • Walnut Street Bridge Resolution Committee report to Chattanooga City Commission addresses questions of bridge's structural soundness, restoration costs, funding repairs (1988)
  • Bridge added to National Register of Historic Places (1990)
  • Restoration begins on 100th anniversary of bridge's original dedication (February 18, 1991)
  • North Shore Plan by Chattanooga–Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency identifies Walnut Street Bridge as linchpin for redevelopment opportunities (1992)
  • The Walnut Street Bridge Restoration project completed (1993) for $4.5 million; at the time is longest pedestrian bridge in world
  • North Shore design guidelines (1998) by Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency reiterate role of bridge in keeping new development compatible with existing character

Features and Activities

  • Pedestrian-level lighting, benches, flower planters, informational signage, waste receptacles
  • Zinc plaques, bearing names of donors, embedded in the wooden sidewalk planks; Walk of Honor located on center span of bridge, pays tribute to Chattanoogans of distinction
  • A climbing wall (Walnut Wall) located on one of the bridge's northern limestone support piers
  • 500-seat amphitheater beneath bridge with access to Riverwalk and stairs to bridge level
  • The nonprofit historic preservation organization, Cornerstones, Inc., sponsors Wine Over Water Festival on bridge (begun 1994); major fundraiser draws 3,000 each year
  • Prime viewing spot for "Head of the Hooch," one of largest rowing events in the country, also July 4th fireworks, Riverbend Festival, Christmas on the River celebration
  • Glass-bottomed pedestrian bridge and First Street sculpture park at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge connect to Hunter Museum of American Art and Aquarium district

Community Leaders and Citizen Involvement

  • Straw poll during 1987 Riverbend Festival found 94 percent support for restoring bridge
  • Earliest bridge reuse study by local architect Kurt Stagmeier (early 1980s)
  • Dr. Jai Kim and Dr. Abba G. Lichtenstein, two consulting engineers, developed alternative, lower-cost ($4 million) proposals to restore bridge; helped convince officials of feasibility of restoration
  • More than 200 volunteers man phones to sell 1,776 plaques to raise funds for bridge restoration
  • Local historic preservation organization, Cornerstones (formerly Landmarks), advocated for bridge restoration and continues work to raise community awareness, secure funding

Generous lighting enables Walnut Street Bridge to be used at night. Photo courtesy Alex McMahan Photography.

Maintenance and Environmental Sustainability

  • Hundreds of tons of historic cut limestone and wrought iron were reused in new retaining walls and decorative exterior stairs in keeping the historic character of the bridge
  • City of Chattanooga departments responsible for general maintenance of bridge
  • The Parks Foundation launches new plaque campaign (2009) to replace original plaques, continuing its fundraising efforts for additional bridge improvements and enhancements
  • Asphalt surface replaced with wooden planking (2009-2010); plaques reissued in recyclable zinc
  • City replaces 126 of the 212 bridge lights with more efficient LED lights (2012); anticipate annual energy savings of more than 62 percent