By Fred Woods
Horace King (1807 -1885) was the most respected bridge builder in this part of the United States during the mid-1800s. He also was an accomplished builder of other structures such as warehouses, mills, courthouses, large houses, churches and spiral staircases. Finally King was considered an accomplished architect as he designed many of the structures he built.
King also had a number of influential friends. There was John Godwin, well-known construction engineer; there was Robert Jemison, one of the most influential early citizens of Alabama, a politician, contractor, bridge builder, plantation owner and entrepreneur; and there was John Shorter, governor of Alabama during the War Between the States.
What else? Oh yes, Horace King was a black man, a slave until he was 40 years old, who lived in a time when most black people in the United States were slaves and generally believed to be inferior to the white race. They were allowed to travel only under very restricted conditions and never alone. Horace King traveled extensively, both alone and without restriction.
King was born into slavery in present-day Chesterfield County, South Carolina. He was of mixed African, European and Indian (Catawba) ancestry. The Rev. Francis L. Cherry, who knew and wrote (very complimentary) of King in adulthood in Alabama, described King’s appearance as “a little above medium size and height, with a complexion showing more his Indian blood than any other.”
Horace and his mother came into possession of John Godwin in 1830, when King was 23 years old. Godwin was known as a builder of structures— houses and mills, primarily. By this time, Horace had already developed skills in bridge building, having helped to build a bridge across the Pee Dee river in South Carolina. It is possible that he worked with Ithiel Town on this project. Town had developed a style of bridge building called the Town Lattice Truss, a style which became King’s favored construction style and was strong enough to span long distances.
In that day, people learned their trade or skill by working with or for a more experienced artisan. That is how Horace King learned and, although John Godwin had been in the construction business for some time before acquiring King, that is probably how he learned as well.
In 1832, Godwin moved to Girard, Ala., the present day Phenix City, across the river fro Columbus, Ga. The main reason was that Godwin had secured a contract to build the first bridge across the Chattahoochee between Columbus and Phenix City. It was the Dillingham Street Bridge, a 560 feet span using the Town Lattice Truss design. This particular bridge was swept away in a flood a few years later but was rebuilt by Godwin/King shortly after. The old stones from the piers can still be seen.
Horace King also built the first railroad bridge connecting the two cities. Reportedly the current railroad bridge uses the same piers. In fact, in the late 1800s, F.L. Cherry observed that every bridge that had been built across the Chattahoochee was built by Horace King.
As Godwin gained more confidence in King’s abilities the two became a team with Godwin specializing in building and house construction and King specializing in bridge construction, although King expanded into houses and buildings after the death of Godwin.
As an aside, Horace King is believed to have designed and built the spiral staircase in the Alabama capitol building. He may or may not have collaborated with Daniel Pratt, noted early Alabama architect, builder and industrialist (for whom Prattville was named). The stairs were built in a cantilever fashion, a bridge building technique..
As the two men gained respect for each other their relationship gradually deepened from a slave/master relationship to a business partnership of more or less equals and, finally, a real friendship. In the late 1830s John Godwin suffered financial difficulties and King’s future, as a valuable asset, became a concern.
Godwin had, by this time, promised King his freedom, but freeing a slave was not an easy thing to accomplish. Alabama law permitted manumission but the freed slave was required to leave the state. This was not acceptable.
Scholars believe that Godwin sent King to Oberlin College in Ohio in the late 1830s. Oberlin was the first college in the U.S. to admit Black students and King also obtained his freedom under Ohio law. Of course, when King came back to Alabama he was a slave again, since Alabama didn’t recognize Ohio law. As a practical matter all this meant was that if King left Alabama he was not subject to the provisions of the federal Fugitive Slave Act, i.e., he could not be captured and returned to Alabama as he was a free person under Ohio law.
Several years later, culminating in Feb. 1848, King’s friend and prominent Alabama politician Robert Jemison helped John Godwin shepherd special legislation through the Alabama legislature that freed Horace King without the requirement that he leave the state. Godwin did, however, have to post a $1,000 bond to insure that King did become a ward of the state.
Horace was also a Mason. He had been inducted into the sublime mysteries of the ancient order while in Ohio. King, a slave, could not become a Mason in Alabama under the order’s rules, but since he was already a Mason, his status was accepted in Alabama. When, during the war, the Union Army seized his mules over his vociferous protests, a Union officer found out King was a Mason. His mules were quickly returned.
Horace King, while still a slave, had been permitted to marry Frances Thomas, a free Black who was reportedly very well educated and of a similar racial make-up as Horace. Since Frances was free, this meant all their children would be free also, so the permission to marry was an indication of the respect the Godwins held for Horace.Together they had four sons and a daughter. At least two of the sons worked with Horace in the building trade. These two carried on after Horace’s death but neither achieved the level of their father’s recognition.
Despite his slave status, King and Godwin apparently shared income from King’s various projects and King was able to travel alone extensively. After Godwin’s death in 1859, which followed on the heels of sharp financial reversals i Godwin’s case, King took full responsibility for the care of Godwin’s widow and the education of Godwin’s children.
King also erected a monument (for which he paid the princely sum of $600 over Godwin’s grave with the following inscription: “This stone was placed by Horace King in Lasting Remembrance of the Love and Gratitude he felt for his friend and former Master.”
Horace King is a member of the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. His admission, (posthumously) was based in large part, on Robert Jemison’s correspondence with him. Jemison, had gained great respect for King through bridge projects they had collaborated on. In addition to helping Godwin shepherd King’s manumission legislation through the legislature, Jemison was a contractor, bridge builder, plantation owner and early Alabama entrepreneur who relied heavily on King’s judgment in such matters as cost estimates, completion estimates and engineering methods. His correspondence with King revealed just how much he (Jemison) respected King as a person and as an equal. He would write to King, “… tell us when you can come and we’ll arrange our schedules to fit yours.”
King and his family were more or less “drafted” under duress to use their skills in behalf of the Confederacy. The burned Confederate gunboat on display at the Confederate Naval Museum in Columbus was, in all likelihood, constructed by King and his two sons.
Horace served in the post-Civil War legislature although he served reluctantly. His building projects kept him from regular attendance in Montgomery. He was, however, well-respected in both white and black communities. As far as whites were concerned, they knew King was no carpetbagger, they knew he was a Mason and they knew of his friendships with Robert Jemison and John Shorter, Alabama’s wartime governor.
Horace’s specialty in construction was spanning long spaces, and bridge building technology was very similar and adaptable to long building spans. Therefore it should be no surprise that he moved into mill and factory construction in the post-war south.
King built Lee County’s first courthouse, located either on 8th Street or 9th Street in front of the present courthouse, and first jail, on Avenue A between 8th and 9th Streets.
Of course he did build the occasional home if incentives were there. Horace King built Spring Villa, the crown jewel in the City of Opelika’s possessions, six miles southwest of the city. Penn Yonge’s wife was the daughter of King’s friend and former master, John Godwin.
Today, as far as can be determined, only one of Horace King’s original bridges is still standing, in Gay, Georgia, over Red Oak Creek. It is (as of October 16, 2015 kept in good repair by the Merriwether County Historical Society. The bridge is, as one would expect, an excellent example of the Town Lattice Truss Bridge.
Horace King died in LaGrange, Georgia, in 1885, at the age of 77. He may have died during a period of depressed financial conditions as his grave, as well as one of his sons beside him, is very modestly marked with a flush-to-the-ground cement marker. The graves had been lost for some time and were rediscovered only during the 1990s.