The Old Wooden Bridge
by Russ Lancaster
**see the many additional notes at the bottom of this tale**
Hamlet is a city of bridges but unlike most cities, most of Hamlet's bridges are over railroad tracks, not water. Hamlet and the railroad... two inseparable entities. You can't have one without the other.
There once was a bridge in Hamlet that was unlike any other. Most of Hamlet's bridges are made of massive concrete pilings and reinforced with steel bars. This special bridge was made entirely of wood from its giant beams and railings all the way down to its wooden sidewalk. This bridge was was built for traffic to cross over the double east/west main line under Rice Street.
The old wooden bridge was a special place for the kids growing up in the forties and fifties. There were no amusement parks in Hamlet but this bridge served Hamlet's kids just fine.
Often, after a Saturday matinee at the Hamlet Theater, kids would walk beneath this old bridge and pretend to be the cowboy stars they had just watched. Each would take on his favorite role be it Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or whomever. The railroad tracks were bounded by tall clay hills (cliffs we called them). And we would climb those cliffs to rescue our imaginary damsels in distress.
Other games we played down below the old wooden bridge included a game called "hits or cracks". It was a silly children's game and Hamlet may have been the only place in the world it was ever played because it was our game, one that we alone had created. It involved walking the tracks from Raleigh Street to Rice Street and picking up old empty Camel cigarette packages. Under each tax stamp across the top of the empty pack was a notation involving two letters and a number. The letters were always either "H" or "C". We used those to designate "hits or cracks". Each kid was required to declare hits or cracks before the label was removed and the winner could then use the number following the "H" or "C" to either hit or crack his friend on the upper portion of his arm. Cracks usually carried a very high number (250 or more) while hits generally ran in the 1 to 10 range. But hits were the likely choice because they were about 50 times more prevalent than cracks. We never explained to our parents why our arms were always sore and bruised and they usually never asked more than once. It was our game.
We also did the usual stuff around the railroad tracks that kids do. We would lay a penny on the tracks and wait for one of the monster steam engines of the day to smash it into the size of a bronze half dollar. We had many of those treasures by the time we reached our teen age years.
Finally, climbing up on the old wooden bridge itself, we found more things to do. One of our favorites involved walking the wooden hand rail across the tracks. The rail was no more than 6 inches wide and about 3 feet off the wooden sidewalk on one side and about 30 feet off the tracks on the other. I never personally ventured more than a few feet before getting off but have seen my share of kids walk the entire bridge like that. I also saw many of them fall but always to the sidewalk side which they favored. It was dangerous, sure. But no one ever fell off the wrong side.
Another game played by both boys and girls alike on the old wooden bridge involved a spitting contest. Standing above the tracks, one leaned over and tried to hit one of the steel tracks with spit. Another silly game, but one we enjoyed. The girls were generally better than boys in this game.
The absolute favorite thing of all about the old wooden bridge was to stand on it directly over the tracks as a steam engine huffed and puffed its way beneath you. These days it would be deemed harmful to your health... and it probably was but we loved it. We would be engulfed in the thick smoke and smell from the engine. The smell was something you will never experience again... it was the smoke of the engine itself combined with the creosote treated timbers of the bridge. It was neither pleasant or unpleasant, just something we enjoyed. We could even feel the bridge vibrate beneath our feet as the powerful puffs of smoke beat against the bottom of the bridge from just a few feet below. It was our way of having fun.
On Sunday morning, May 6, 1973, I was awakened from my home on Spring Street by a loud thunderous clump. The windows shook. I knew something terrible had happened and rushed the few blocks toward Rice Street from where I thought the sound had come. A train derailment directly under the old wooden bridge had caused the bridge to collapse down upon the train in the chasm below. Angels must have been at work that morning since there were no injuries. The collapse of the bridge had come an hour or so before hundreds of people would have been driving across on their way to church that morning. They would not have had a chance. **note** There is an error in the book celebrating Hamlet's first 100 years (More than a Memory) that lists this incident as having occurred around midnight on May 5, 1973. Believe me, I was there and I remember the time...
The bridge has since been replaced but lacks the character of its predecessor. It too is made of wood but it just isn't quite the same. Kids these days will know nothing of the thrills we had with the old wooden bridge. They have their TV's and electronic games to occupy their time. I miss the old wooden bridge.
The next time you have a chance, try to convey the way things were back then to your own children or grandchildren who otherwise will never know how it was when we grew up. Even so, they will never know the thrill of watching a thundering steam engine smash a penny into the size of a half dollar, they probably won't care about cowboy heroes or imaginary cliffs with damsels in distress. Spitting on a railroad track from a bridge won't excite them and Camel cigarettes are a rarity. But most of all, they will never know the thrill of standing on an old wooden bridge and being engulfed by the sounds and smells of a powerful steam engine just below their feet or the feel of its power as it shakes the very foundation they stand on. We can only tell them of such things and hope they understand.
Yes... I remember that old wooden bridge. And most of all... I remember Hamlet.
**note**: June 18, 2000 brought yet another memory of the old wooden bridge. My family was all gathered in Hamlet because of the passing of our Mom. I felt an urge to drive around Hamlet and take some pictures. I took my youngest daughter who I see every day, my son-in-law, and my own son and grandson whom I haven't seen in nearly 12 years on the drive with me. The old wooden bridge was one of our stops. As I stood above with my daughter and grandson, my son (now in his thirties) climbed down the kudzu covered steep embankment to the tracks below to take a picture or two of the old wooden bridge for me. A train whistle blew to let us know a westbound freight would soon be making its appearance around the curve from the Passenger station. My son, knowing of my love for that old bridge and the games we played, placed a coin on the tracks. We all watched and waited for the train to pass to again find the old treasure of a coin flattened twice its size by the massive steel wheels. We stood above and watched him, me with a tear in my eyes, as the train moved beneath our feet shaking the old wooden bridge. For a moment I was whisked back in time and then quickly back to the present as I saw the look in the eyes of my grandson, son and daughter. Thank you, old wooden bridge. Thank you for keeping our secret so many years and for allowing an old man the simple pleasure of sharing something so trivial, yet so important, with his family. ...... Russ Lancaster, June - 2000.
**note**: June 19, 2002: I have heard from some folks who still live in Hamlet that the old wooden bridge has recently been demolished. I understand it was a city decision this time to do away with this old memory and special place. If so, that is a shame. This place held memories for many of us from so long ago and had some historical value as well. It is also an inconvenience, if the story is true, to those traveling from the Hamlet Avenue side of Hamlet to the Main Street side. They would now have to detour to Raleigh Street or busy Highway 177 to get from one side of town to another.
...... Russ Lancaster, June - 2002
**note**: February 26, 2005: We have had some new input on the old wooden bridge including (first) an entry (#193) in the guestbook and (second) via an e-mail from Steve Shaw which follows below:
Russ, I did not know where to put this but I would like to note that my
oldest brother John Shaw fell off the Old Wooden Bridge and to my knowledge
was the only one to do so. He was on his way home from school and was in a
rock throwing fight and went to duck and fell throught the railings on to
the tracks. He got up walked to the hospital and was checked out with just
scratches and bruises and walked home. I walked across the railing just once
scared to death as many did and I did see a couple of boys ride their bikes
across the railings, which could have been the Blakely brothers. One other
consideration we had was to jump off the bridge onto a moving box car like
the cowboys did in the movies. Thank God we never did. You were right they
may have rebuilt the bridge or have taken it down but the old one remains in
our memories of growing up and to those of us it still remains. Steve Shaw
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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