Until more recent decades, Knox County’s record of historic preservation was spotty, at best. Back in 1968, however, it wasn’t a lack of will or funds that cost the area its lone covered bridge.
The Brice Covered Bridge crossed Big Flat Creek on Old Rutledge Pike in East Knox County just west of Clear Springs Road. On Halloween 54 years ago, some pranksters took their Devil’s Night revelry too far and torched it to a crisp.
According to the coverage in the November 1, 1968, Knoxville News Sentinel, it was a busy night all the way around for fires:
Halloween vandals, active in the city and county, burned two abandoned buildings and set another fire which destroyed the only remaining covered bridge in Knox County.
When deputies arrived on scene a little before 5 a.m., the bridge was a lost cause. According to them, the “vandals” had doused the bridge in gasoline before setting it ablaze. Sadly, deputies had been guarding the bridge until around midnight, because for several consecutive years prior there had been attempts to burn the bridge by starting trash fires. They gave up their watch too soon.
The story went on to note the other structure and dumpster fires set that night as well as a rash of egged and toilet-papered houses (What was that, again, about the kids these days?).
The bridge was built in the early 1800s, but possibly wasn’t covered until 1878. In 1856 the land surrounding the bridge was purchased by N.B. Brice, for whom the bridge was named. Brice constructed a mill on Big Flat Creek and also took possession of the inn/home that was originally built by James “Trooper” Armstrong.
Armstrong served in the Revolutionary War and owned more than 2,000 acres of land, including the area later purchased by Brice. His home served as a stage-stand for travelers in the early 19th century on what was then the main road heading out of Knoxville to Washington, D.C. Presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk are reported to have stayed there.
During Armstrong’s day, the building was known as Trooper’s House and/or the Armstrong Inn, but by the end of the 1800s it was known as Brice’s Tavern. Just six years prior to the loss of the bridge, the tavern was also lost to a fire on February 13, 1962. The old mill was deconstructed in the early 1900s.
The old bridge was refurbished on several occasions, once in 1901 by a Captain John Gates of Knoxville and again in 1939 as a project of the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. An article in the KNS from April 9, 1939 noted the repairs would be adding five feet of roof, extending the bridge to 110 feet, and when all was finished, the cover would be painted red.
While there may be some overgrown remnants of the tavern and mill left behind, the only thing indicating what once was is a historical marker for Brice’s Tavern. A lot of history disappeared from this one area due to advances in technology, an accident and a whole lot of Tom Foolery.
Photos and sources courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives at the East Tennessee History Museum.