Sevier County’s cherished old covered bridge stands as a memorial to
the industry and hard work of the Early family: skilled engineers,
millwrights and carpenters. The bridge also is a memorial to the
Harrisburg Community and to the founders of that community.
From around the turn of the century until 1915, Harrisburg was a busy
commercial center. There was a store, a mill, a blacksmith, and a school
but that is getting ahead of our story. Lets go back to the beginning as
far as we know.
When the pioneers in our area looked for a good home-site, they were
looking for a source of good water (spring, brook, etc). Far sighted men
were also looking for a stream with enough volume and fall to power a
The first settler in the Harrisburg area as far is known was a Mr. Hill,
and his body lies in a grave in the Red Bank cemetery. The old dirt road
from Knoxville to Newport passed through what was to become Harrisburg.
This was the road along which Longstreet
retreated from Knoxville on his way to Virginia during the Civil War.
This was an important road and required a bridge. We don’t know who
built the first dam, mill and bridge here. The flood of 1875 washed all
away. Shortly after the flood the large plantation changed hands. A Mr.
McNutt who had owned the property was a confederate office in the Civil
War. He sold the plantation to Alexander Umbarger who was from Virginia.
Mr. Umbarger’s ambitious plans for rebuilding the dam and mill brought
a number of people to the area.
Among those coming were the Earlys. These were skilled people:
engineers, millwrights, carpenters. The Earlys had built other mills in
Sevier County, and one in North Carolina. Elbert Stephenson Early owned
Newport Mills. Elbert Early is given credit by the State Historical
Commission for being the builder of the Harrisburg Covered Bridge, as
shown on the historical marker IC 55 near the bridge. Elbert probably
had the help of other members of his family in the task.
Harrisburg flourished when Mr. Umbarger and his son-in-law, a Mr. Hines,
operated the mill. The mill became a more modern roller mill. A sawmill
was built. There was a blacksmith shop. Between 1890 and 1916 Harrisburg
was fat the height of its activity. The blacksmith shop was an
interesting place. The smith made dog irons for folks to use in their
fireplace, shovels and other implements for the farm. He sharpened the
plows, shod horses, and in short made anything
from metal a body might need.
The general store was owned by the Marshall twins. This was the social
center of the area. Men idled by rain or other vagaries of nature, could
talk about the weather, bemoan bad crops, brag about good crops or just
pass the time. Men brought grain to the mill to be ground into flour or
into meal. Yes, wheat was grown in Sevier County back then. There was a
telephone line from Cosby, by way of Jones Cove and Harrisburg to
Sevierville. It was a party line. A local doctor even made his own
There is a story that when the old bridge needed its cover repaired in
1910 that two small boys helped a Mr. Burns with the task. They climbed
up on the bridge and helped to remove the old boards. One of the boys
made the statement, years later when he was 77 years old, that when he
helped with the bridge there was a date in large letters on the south
entrance that read 1887. Some
time in the life of the bridge the old weather boards were damaged by
folks making a sport of throwing rocks against them. Carpenters repaired
the bridge, replacing the damaged weather boarding. The carpenters also
made the small windows. The original bridge had no such windows.
Several doctors cared for the Harrisburg community. The first one to
practice there was Dr. Hodesden who lived at a large plantation known as
Rose Glen sometime in 1880-1890. Dr. Fred Cape lived in Harrisburg. Dr.
John Elder was there 1890- to 1903. He was from Jefferson County and a
graduate of East Tennessee Medical School. He made calls to Greenbrier,
Dutch Settlement. Gatlinburg, and Boogertown, as well as serving
Why did the busy community die? The old dirt road from Knoxville to the
East Fork became what is known
as a by-passed road. In, 1915 the road was extended to the Jefferson
County line and by-passed Harrisburg by one-fourth mile. Business began
to fail. People moved away.
Dr. John Elder’s daughter Mary lived all her life within 150 feet of
the bridge. Mary taught in Loudon County Schools and she taught in
Sevier County Schools for many years. It is from her work that this
writer and many others have gleaned a knowledge of Harrisburg. Mary
elder passed away in 1981 but she left an enduring legacy: her work in
the schools, and her memories of Harrisburg about which she wrote.
Mary’s greatest work perhaps was that she was instrumental in stirring
up interest in repairing and saving the Harrisburg bridge. She
interested local leaders in the cause and in 1972 the old bridge was
restored by joint efforts of the Great Smokies & Spencer Clack
Chapters of the DAR.