the old roads

Way down in west central Georgia, in Meriwether County, there’s tiny little unincorporated village called Imlac. I know something of unincorporated hamlets, as I hail from one myself, but Imlac is so small that the Census Bureau has no population data for it. It barely exists, but there is a sign on State Route 85 and it looks just like the one in my hometown, with the exception of the name. “IMLAC”, it reads, and right beneath “unincorporated”, which simply means it’s not a city.

But it is a place, and as such has some meaning. I’ve been unable so far to find any information about how it got its name, but by process of elimination I think I’ve got a good idea. I doubt seriously it was named for the Imlac Corporation, a Massachusetts company that produced graphical display systems in the 1970s, well before Apple’s Mac. And I’m equally sure it’s not named for the Inner Melbourne Life Activities Club, whatever that is.

And that leaves Imlac, the poet-philosopher friend of the title character in Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, published in 1759. The book was quite popular throughout the 19th Century, and is even read by characters in popular novels of the time, like Jane Eyre, The House of Seven Gables, Middlemarch and Little Women. That makes it a fairly good guess for the source of the little town’s name, if it ever reached the level of a town.

Most of the roads in the area of Imlac began their lives as the ancient tracks of herd animals and the Aboriginal Americans who followed them while hunting, later incorporating them into trails between their towns. Later still they became the roads the colonists used to press ever deeper in aboriginal territory.

One such path was the Okfuskee Trail, which connected the Augusta, Georgia, area with the Muskogee town of Okfuskee on the Tallapoosa River in what is now east central Alabama. I know the trail crossed the Flint River into what is now Meriwether County at the Flat Shoals and then traveled on to the present Greenville and further west.

The present day Flat Shoals Road follows along the Okfuskee Trail’s route. At the Flat Shoals was one of Georgia’s many textile mills, water power being plentiful and lucrative. The factory may well have been a source of jobs for the people of Imlac, only about 10 miles away. But, water being plentiful in the area, the Big Red Oak Creek blocked the way.

Enter Horace King, born a slave in South Carolina in 1807, who bought his freedom 40 years later because he was an engineering and architectural genius. He worked alongside his contractor owner John Godwin for years, eventually surpassing Godwin’s renown and working on projects in his own right.

King bought his freedom from the proceeds of his projects in 1847, but not from Godwin, who had transferred ownership to his wife and her uncle a decade earlier to keep creditors from seizing him. Tuscaloosa attorney Robert Jemison, who financed a number of King’s projects and served in the state senate, pushed a bill through the legislature that allowed King, a free slave with virtually no rights, to stay in the state and own property.

King built houses and designed the magnificent spiral staircase in the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery, but his greatest legacy is his work on bridges. One of those, and the only one that remains in use, spans Big Red Oak Creek between Imlac and Flat Shoals Road. It’s a remarkably sturdy covered bridge, built in the town lattice truss style.

At 391 feet, it’s Georgia’s longest wooden bridge, and its 253-foot covered span over the creek is the longest unsupported wooden span in the state. After some repairs in the 1980s, the 170-year-old bridge is still in use, another superlative for the state — its oldest wooden bridge still carrying regular traffic.

I came across the bridge just after that unincorporated Imlac sign, when I spotted another sign that said “Covered Bridge Road.” And “pavement ends”. The pavement didn’t actually end until the other side of the bridge, commonly called the Imlac Bridge.

After walking the bridge’s length and back, I was surprised to find my GPS telling me to drive over it. I did, continuing along the dirt drive to Flat Shoals Road.

I saw one mailbox, no houses, several cows and a few deer along the way. It was, in the words of my traveling companion, the gem of the day.

Horace King, by the way, was conscripted by the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, building fortifications and developing the cladding for the CSA’s ironclad warships. A staunch Unionist, that couldn’t have set well, nor could the destruction of many of his bridges, particularly those strategic structures over the Chattahoochee, by Union troops during the war.

King did well during Reconstruction, however, bringing his five sons into his architectural and engineering business and serving for a time in the Alabama General Assembly. King spent his last years in LaGrange, Georgia, where he died in 1885.

###
All photos by the author, except photo of Horace King (courtesy Columbus Museum) and staircase (courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey). This post originally appeared at The Old Roads.
KC Wildmoon

KC Wildmoon

KC Wildmoon is an accidental journalist who never even bothered to finish school since her accounting major was incredibly boring. Instead, she opted for being a minor rock star and annoying as many government officials as possible on a regular basis. After 16 years at CNN, she's now doing forensic journalism for Ireland-based Storyful.