In the dark of one night long ago, a man named Sherman Hawkins was walking home from church through the Salt Creek bottoms in southeastern Monroe County, Indiana. He had been to a religious service at a church in the settlement of Allens Creek and his destination was the community of Sanders where he lived.
There was no moon to light his way through that primal country. But having walked that wagon-track gravel pathway on previous days and nights, Hawkins was confident he could find his way in the dark of this night. He also was certain he would have no trouble locating the wooden covered bridge that spanned the creek on that route.
There were at least five bridges in that general area that crossed the meandering Salt Creek in those days. One was the Fairfax Bridge, another was the Goodman Bridge, two others were the Cutright Bridge and, further south in Lawrence County, The Red Bridge. The fifth bridge which was a one hundred fifty-five foot long wooden, metal-roofed bridge was known as the Nancy Jane Bridge.
Hawkins hoped to cross the Nancy Jane that night. At least that was the route home, and having walked it several times before, in the darkness of this moonless night he instinctively had set his bearings in that direction.
It was a cold night and he was anxious to complete his journey. The longer he walked the more adjusted his eyes became to the dark, and when the silhouette of the covered bridge loomed before him he was certain that he recognized it for what it was. Darker than the moonless night was the interior of the covered bridge which was pitch black, and Hawkins was unable to see inside it.
There was nothing to fear. Although it had been rumored that the bridge was haunted by the ghost of a person found hanged inside the structure one time, it is not known if Hawkins was aware of this. What he was aware of was the lingering claim in those days that the Nancy Jane was so old and rickety that a dog running across its timber flooring would rattle its entire span.
The last time Hawkins had crossed the bridge before this night it was intact and safe. Besides that, automobiles, trucks and many farm wagons of that period had been crossing it daily without mishap. Secure in this thought, then, if he thought it at all, he strode up the ramp and entered the inky blackness inside.
Prior to the construction of Monroe Reservoir by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, farm homes and small rural communities dotted the 10,500 acre site of the big reservoir. Rich farmlands also were in abundance and, as farmlands go, farm animals also were there.
Whether it had ever happened before, or if it ever happened afterwards, is unknown. But on this cold, moonless night, a herd of black cattle had taken shelter and were lying quietly at rest and unseen in the coal-black interior of the bridge.
Unaware of the huge, living obstructions in his path, Hawkins, anxious as he was to get home, plunged on and into the bridge. Since there were no witnesses except Hawkins to what took place then, anyone who reads this must accept what happened on hearsay evidence or use his own imagination as to what transpired from this point on. However, to assist readers with that, a few words were offered many years later by the man’s son, Russell Stanley Hawkins of Bloomington. He had long and quietly savored the hand-me-down family account of that night and had conjured up his own mental picture of the surprise that awaited his unsuspecting father inside the pitch-black of the Nancy Jane.
“I can just see Dad,” he said laughing, “trying to walk across the backs of all those cows in the dark and wondering what in the world he’d gotten into.”
Arousing curiosity among those who hear it is this story recounted by Winfred Deckard about his parents Ora and Lizzy Deckard.
Lizzy had grown up on Chandler Road near Burgoon. She was the only girl in a family of seven boys. Lizzie fell in love with and married Ora Deckard who grew up on Allens Creek a couple of miles from the Nancy Jane Bridge. They were married in Monroe County then went by horse and buggy all the way to Nashville, Indiana to have their wedding picture taken by the renowned artist TC Steele.
The next morning they started out for Allens Creek where they would live for the rest of their lives. When they got to the Nancy Jane Bridge, Ora pulled inside the bridge and stopped the horse. Turning to Lizzy he asked a strange question. “Lizzy,” he said, “are you game to tear that up?” He meant the beautiful marriage license that Lizzy was clutching in her hands. She had plans to frame it when she got home.
Having grown up with seven brothers Lizzy could never pass up a dare. She sat for a minute and thought it over but the challenge got the best of her. She got out of the buggy, tore up the marriage license and pushed the pieces through some cracks in the floor of the Nancy Jane and watched them float away down Salt Creek.
There are other stories about the Nancy Jane Bridge. Some probably are still being told in staggered, fading anecdotes. Undoubtedly others have been lost in the contexts of divergent tales, and one or two probably have been immersed in the hidden collections of ancestral backgrounds. My interest in this bridge began one morning around a restaurant community breakfast table. During the narration of another story the name “Nancy Jane Bridge” was mentioned.
Nancy Jane? Bridge? It was the first time I had heard that name and while it may or may not have done anything for anyone else at the table, the mere sound of that name had stirred my curiosity and imagination. Not the George Washington Bridge, not the Golden Gate Bridge, not the Brooklyn Bridge, but the Nancy Jane Bridge in rural Monroe County, Indiana.
What an enchanting name for a bridge. Whimsical. Poetic. Romantic. And not in some far-off country or aging fictional tale. Of what else could it possibly have spoken to me that morning? History? Legend? Not completely ignoring those likely probabilities, I think now as I look back that I leaned more toward the whimsical, the poetic and the romantic.
As a newspaper reporter my work ethic has been one of seeking, finding and reporting. And in the case of the Nancy Jane Bridge I sought and I found some helpful people to whom I am indebted for all that I learned about it. In some cases the bridge’s story was duplicated, in others it was incomplete. But the ultimate result as I am reporting here seems to be what I had striven for. If I have missed an important aspect of the Nancy Jane, I apologize.
Many months passed after that morning when the name Nancy Jane Bridge was uttered at that breakfast table and after Russell Stanley Hawkins related the story about his father’s nocturnal experience in the bridge. Years, really, for I had an agenda I felt could not be compromised. But my interest remained intact. Responses to my curiosity continued, and then one Sunday evening my wife, Marion, and I were guests in the home of David Staver and his wife Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver in Bloomington. With us was Martha Alice Hays Stewart, also of Bloomington and sister to Georgiabel, both of whom were great granddaughters of Nancy Jane McDonald Chambers, the woman for whom the bridge was named. During a pleasant two-hour visit I was able to garner information enough to support and fill in the blank spaces of what data I already had and write the following story about the Nancy Jane Bridge.
Nancy Jane McDonald was an orphan girl who arrived in Indiana from Kentucky as the indentured servant of the owner of the inn and stage coach station at Fairfax, Indiana. The community is no longer existent, having been condemned and abandoned in the late 1950s or the early 1960’s with the beginning of construction of the Monroe Reservoir. Its site is at the bottom of what now is popularly and economically referred to as Lake Monroe, the largest man-made lake in Indiana.
In its halcyon days, Fairfax, situated near the banks of Salt Creek, was a thriving, self-sufficient colony. Basically a farming community, it nevertheless produced a variety of materials, including pork, whiskey, sorghum and native lumber, that were shipped aboard homemade flatboats and rafts to markets in Kentucky and further south. Once relieved of their cargoes, boats and rafts were dismantled, their lumber sold for whatever price it would bring, and their crews would return to Fairfax via overland routes.
No one, it seems, is certain of this, but it may have been in this way or manner that one day the orphan girl named Nancy Jane McDonald appeared in Fairfax, the servant girl under legal contract to the innkeeper of the Fairfax Inn and Stage Coach Station there. In any event, little, if anything, is known about how Nancy Jane McDonald got there, and less is known about her life at the Fairfax Inn. But at some point in the early 1840’s she met a Monroe County native there named John Wesley Chambers. It must have been love at first sight, and after the usual courtship of that period they married.
John Wesley Chambers , being the son of early Monroe County landed parents, David and Sara Meadows Chambers who had twelve children, received a wedding gift from them of a tract of land along Salt Creek. It was on this land, on a bluff overlooking the well-traveled Salt Creek ford, that John Wesley built for his bride what is stated in an early family writing as “a substantial log house.” There they lived, in what became popularly known as “The house on the hill,” for two decades, presumably happy, and rearing a family of seven children. They were Henry, David, James, Dugan, Rachel (Blackwell), Eliza (Cazee) and Alice (Smith).
At some time during the early days of the Civil War, John Wesley Chambers, perhaps lured by reports of richer farmlands there, decided to move his wife and family from the banks of Salt Creek near Fairfax to the State of Illinois. Piling his family and their belongings into a covered wagon they spent six weeks on the trail from Fairfax, Indiana, to Urbana, Illinois. Sometime after their arrival, John Wesley bought a farm there and settled down to farming. Unfortunately for the newcomers, a tornado struck their home one night and scattered their belongings over the prairie. Frightened and disheartened, the next morning they moved into some rooms over a store in the city of Urbana.
For a personal account of the Illinois venture, I turned to the1981 journal of Agnes Blackwell Hays, the mother of Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver and Martha Alice Hays Stewart. Mrs. Hays also was (the daughter of Rachel Chambers Blackwell and) the granddaughter to John Wesley and Nancy Jane Chambers.
“John Wesley,” she wrote, “was thinking that the Union must be saved and he wanted to help. President Lincoln appealed for volunteers (and) he answered the call. Colorfully dressed militia with throbbing drums and lilting fifes marched down the streets of Urbana. John Wesley, waving farewell to his family, who were watching the parade, marched away to the Union Army Training ground in Tennessee. They never saw him again.”
With her husband gone out of her life leaving her alone with her family, Nancy Jane set out to return to the only home she ever knew––the house her husband had built for her in Indiana. Sadly, there is no written record, no surviving hand-me-down elaboration of that harrowing overland covered wagon ordeal with her family from Urbana, Illinois , back to their home on the hill above Salt Creek near Fairfax, Indiana. That the trip was completed at all, not to mention completed safely, speaks highly of the courage and determination of the former indentured servant girl, Nancy Jane McDonald.
With the help of her family she farmed the land. Wild game was plentiful. Deer and game fowl were shot near the house for food. Hogs roamed at large and were well fattened by butchering time. Combined with the yield from the land they apparently fared well. It is also noted in the family history that Nancy Jane served the area as midwife, and that she rode a horse side-saddle to distant neighbors when her services were required. At some point during this time two of Nancy Jane’s sons enlisted in the Union Army and went off to fight in the continuing Civil War and to search for their father.
In her journal, Agnes Blackwell Hays had written, “While he (John Wesley) was serving in the Union Army he wrote regularly to Nancy Jane. He urged the children to help their mother and to attend school. Nancy Jane sent the children to (a school at) Mt. Ebal when the weather was suitable.”
When spring rains overflowed Salt Creek flooding the ford and the surrounding bottom lands, farmers and travelers were stymied. Obstructed as they were from their destinations by high water, they were forced to delay their work or their travels. It is not clear when or how it began, but one day a strange thing appeared on the creek bank below the log house on the hill, a “canoe” tied to a tree. Although it seems more likely that it was a flat boat or ferry boat of some kind instead of a canoe, one thing was certain. Nancy Jane Chambers had begun ferrying people across Salt Creek. At high water travelers called up to her and she would descend the bluff and row them across the swollen creek. Sometimes she sent one of her children to do the honors.
During part of this time Nancy Jane and her soldier husband corresponded regularly. In her journal, Mrs. Hays wrote: “One time when a photographer visited the Army camp he had a picture made to send home, saying, ‘I had my likeness made and prices are very dear down here, it cost $1.50.’ He wrote to Nancy Jane that there was going to be a big battle at Vicksburg. Preparations had been going on for some time.
“My grandfather wrote beautiful letters to Nancy Jane, still legible in ink,” Mrs. Hays’ account continues. “Always addressing her as ‘My Dear Wife’ and closing all with ‘Your affectionate husband until death do us part.’”
John Wesley Chambers became ill while serving with the Union Army at Vicksburg and died there of pneumonia.
To repeat, Agnes Blackwell Hays was the daughter of Thomas and Rachel Blackwell, Rachel being the daughter of Nancy Jane Chambers. After her family was gone and she had aged, Nancy Jane was assisted by Thomas and Rachel who, with their children, lived with her in the Chambers house on the hill and cared for her until her death in 1880. After Nancy Jane’s death the Blackwells bought the house from the other Chambers heirs. Their children included Jane Turner, Leafy (Johns), Lola (Buchanan), twins Tonnie (Wooden) and Frank, Clarence, Annie (Earl) and Agnes ( Mrs. Hays).
During Nancy Jane’s last years, travel across Salt Creek below her house had increased to a point that petitions were being made to county commissioners for the construction of a bridge there. Construction was begun some time after Nancy Jane’s death and it was opened to traffic in 1885. In her journal Mrs. Hays noted that “A relative of the Chambers family designed and constructed (the bridge’s) huge beams in the rainbow arch style. It was a very strong bridge and one of the longest bridges in Monroe County.”
History records that the bridge was first called or was intended to be named the Musserman Bridge. But because the widow who lived in the house on the hill above the Salt Creek ford had done so much for her neighbors and travelers, it was agreed that the bridge should be named in her memory: consequently the name Nancy Jane Bridge.
As a girl Nancy Jane’s granddaughter, Agnes Blackwell Hays, and some of her siblings attended Allens Creek School, which was roughly two miles north across the Nancy Jane Bridge in the community of Allens Creek. It is noted that on the way to school Agnes, during high water, was carried piggy-back across the creek by her brothers, Frank and Clarence. Years later, after becoming a teacher, she taught at that same school and daily rode a horse to and from her teaching responsibilities there.
Forbidden by her father to ride astraddle of the horse because it was improper for a woman to do so in those days, she was forced to ride side-saddle. But being a strong-willed woman, Agnes soon tired of the side saddle. She purchased some fabric and made herself a split skirt, and appareled in that manner she was able to ride properly astraddle of the horse. This arrangement apparently was agreeable with her father.
There are indications that she was a well-liked teacher. For example, when she arrived at the school in the morning, the boys in her one-room class would out-do each other to unsaddle, feed and pasture her horse. Later, after school, they would vie for the privilege to re-saddle the animal for her ride home.
The Nancy Jane Bridge became a county landmark and served the public at large until the early 1960s. “Then,” a pained and grieving Agnes Blackwell Hays wrote, “came the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Nancy Jane Bridge was pushed into the water at each end. It hung there in shame. Finally they burned it. . . . This was all the work of the (sic) Army Engineering Corps.”
In a moving nostalgic view, Mrs. Hays had written: It (The Nancy Jane Bridge) was a haven for travelers who took refuge under its roof when caught in a storm. It was a place to stop and let the horses rest while occupants (of wagons and buggies) refreshed themselves with a cold drink of spring water. Just a few yards down the banks of Salt Creek a gourd dipper hung on a (tree) limb. The spring filled a basin, no doubt cut from the blue colored rock by John Wesley (Chambers). There was always plenty of water flowing from a cave-like opening in the bank. The bridge and the ‘ole swimming hole’ was the recreation center in the summertime for all the young farm boys in the neighborhood. They first gathered for a swim. After a while the boys would play in the bridge, climbing the arches, and some of the venturesome ones climbed on top of the bridge from trees and walked the ridge pole.
“Our news media’ was the Nancy Jane Bridge,” she continued. “We could tell (from the sounds made on the bridge’s wood floor) whether a horseman was clip-clopping or trotting his animal. A loaded wagon rumbled heavily. The horse and buggy didn’t make much noise. Two horses hitched to a buggy carrying two sailor-hatted drummers (salesmen) ran fast through the bridge. These drummers took orders from the country stores at Allens’ Creek, Chapel Hill, Fairfax and Smithville. If the noise (inside the bridge) receded we knew that the travelers were going to town. If the noise got louder we knew to look from the windows and see who it was, and to speculate on where they were going.”
It is noted that Agnes Blackwell Hays was assisted in the compilation or her written account by Martha Alice Hays Stewart, her daughter, and typed by Nancy Whitlow Davidson, great granddaughter of Rachel Chambers Blackwell, and great great granddaughter of Nancy Jane Chambers.
Agnes Blackwell Hays ended her family account with these words: “Now I bid farewell to Nancy Jane who died in 1880 and was buried on Chambers land. In 1964 (because all burial sites were moved to make room for the lake) her dust was moved to the new Allens Creek Cemetery.”
A touching memory to the Nancy Jane Bridge are the words of Marcella Frye Deckard, of Bloomington, who as a girl lived at Allens Creek and almost daily road through the structure. She wrote: “When I was a kid it was like when you went through the Nancy Jane we entered Never-Never Land. A land of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors you had known since you were born. Every day till I was sixteen, I went back and forth between Never-Never Land and the real world.”
She continued: “I was never afraid of the Nancy Jane Bridge. I never once thought of ghosts or that it might fall through and I would fall in the creek. But I did have one bus driver who made me very nervous. I was about eight years old and he ran off of a little bridge on Allens Creek. I was the last passenger and when he missed the bridge and we were hanging in what seemed to be mid air, I said, ‘Mr. Prince I think you have missed the bridge.’ He laughed about it for years. Forever after I didn’t quite trust him to make the entrance of the Nancy Jane.”
Her narration continued: “Coming home from school wasn’t so bad, but going to school down a huge hill and making a rather sharp turn into the bridge was always worrisome. Every time he made it I would breath a sigh of relief. When there was a big snow it was scarier. I had this plan where I always sat on the side of the bus that was next to the creek. I thought that if he missed the bridge the bus would roll completely over and I would end up on top farthest from the cold water. Says a lot for a kid’s logic doesn’t it?
“The bridge was always very cool in the hot summer. It was also very dusty. Thick dust lying on the boards worn very smooth with the passage of time. It was fun to walk through barefoot. You could wash your feet in the creek afterwards. Reading the writing on the walls was also fun. There wasn’t too much in the way of bad language back then. Mostly it was so and so loves somebody, initials in hearts, etc. Where else could a country kid write on walls or carve initials without getting into trouble.
“When I was sixteen we moved from Allens Creek to Cleve Butcher Road, which led to the bridge. Shortly after, my Uncle Omain Eads and his family moved also. My cousin Cozetta Eads Lucas went and walked through the bridge and took our pictures. That night we camped in our grandma’s old house on Allens Creek. Little did I know that would be the last night I would ever spend on Allens Creek, and it was also the last walk through the Nancy Jane.
“When I was twenty, Lake Monroe was becoming a reality and the end of the bridge was very near. They had offered the bridge to anyone who wanted to move it. I tried to talk my father into moving it to our place. I thought it would make a colorful, unique storage building. He didn’t think too much of my idea. I remember the year the last remains of the bridge were burnt. I was expecting my first child. That day many cars went past our house on the way to see the end of an era. In one of the cars was Rachel Peden. She later wrote an article for the newspaper saying goodbye.
“Myself, I watched the smoke rise up above the tree line from my yard. I was crying to think the Nancy Jane would never be seen again. I guess you could say the end of the Nancy Jane and my childhood came at the same time. Shortly after, I became a mother and childhood and the Nancy Jane was a lovely memory.”
The Nancy Jane Bridge became a lovely memory for many others, including Marcella Deckard’s aunt, Wanda Frye Deckard. As a girl Wanda also attended classes at Smithville. It was there that she met her future husband, Blaine Deckard. During their courtship they crossed the Nancy Jane numerous times in Blaine/s Model A Ford.
Vannie Meadows Hays also grew up at Allens Creek and crossed the Nancy Jane to attend classes at Smithville School. During the week she sometimes stayed with a sister, Addie Meadows Cazee, in Smithville, and on Fridays she walked home across the bridge. During inclement weather her brother, Argal, would ride horseback to meet her and give her a lift home. Vannie reportedly frequently walked from her home at Allens Creek to Smithville School and back. The exercise must have been beneficial for she reared seven children and lived to be one hundred and three years old. She died in the year 2000.
Army Corps of Engineers’ condemnation proceedings included with the bridge all of the Chambers property and the house on the hill. Frank Blackwell, Agnes Blackwell Hays’ brother, aware of the beautiful native yellow poplar board interior of the house, purchased it for fifty dollars, with the intention of dismantling the structure and moving the lumber to his home.
“Before he could do that,” said his eighty-one year old son, Frank Blackwell Jr. at his Bloomington home, “someone burned it down.”
Frank Blackwell Jr. remembered visits to the Chambers home. He especially enjoyed recounting rabbit hunting expeditions in the area of the Nancy Jane Bridge and family Thanksgiving Day dinners in the house on the bluff.
After her visit to the bridge site, the popular Hoosier Farm Wife, Mrs. R.F.D., on Sept. 2, 1964, did write a lengthy epitaph to the bridge in her Indianapolis Star column. In part, she said: “The Nancy Jane covered bridge was gone. The broken road gaped above the creek and was blocked at each end, for safety’s sake, by a bulldozer’s fistful of rocks, earth and roots. In the bed of the creek, exactly between the great piles of stones that had supported it since 1885, lay the charred and still smoke-fragrant remains of the Nancy Jane. It had been intentionally burned by engineers returned to finish the clearing preparatory to letting the Monroe County Reservoir fill.”
She went on to paint a vivid word memory of the remains of the span. “The narrow road originally came down a steep hill (Cleve Butcher Road) to a curve, and the bridge, in order to connect the two parts, had been built with a curve in its one hundred and fifty-five foot length. It was a graceful bridge, built with the truss arch made famous by Theodore Burr, covered bridge builder of renown in the 1880s. Even in its demise it had behaved with a kind of grace collapsing neatly into the creek, so that its heat-discolored metal roof gave a kind of privacy to its burned timbers . . .”
NOTES OF INTEREST:
In a letter about the bridge from Alice Smith, Ison Road, Bloomington, who was reared on Allens Creek, an anonymous speaker is quoted as saying, “We’ll go miles around and we’ll never cross the bridge again,” because it was alleged to be haunted.
A report of a tragic mishap came from Morris L. Souders of Unionville. Handed down by his grandparents, the account is of one Thomas Eri Sowder who, while working in the vicinity of the Nancy Jane Bridge, fell off a log wagon and was crushed to death.
Before entering the bridge from the south, from the direction of the Chambers home, the road made a ninety degree right turn before reaching the ramp leading into the bridge. To continue on the road after leaving the north end of the bridge also required a ninety degree left turn. It is a part of family lore that the turns into and out of the Nancy Jane Bridge were used by school teacher Agnes Blackwell Hays to demonstrate to her son and pupil Jack Hays the meaning of ninety-degree angles.
In a brief letter of not of reminiscences of the Nancy Jane Bridge, Jack Hays
“‘A bottle of pop and a big banana, I’m from Smithville, Indiana.’
“I first heard these words,” he went on to explain, “as my brother and I walked through the Nancy Jane Bridge long years ago. I smiled at the remark then and now as I recall the memory. The words were obviously meant to ease my fear of not being on solid ground. It was late summer of 1935 and I still recall the dust flopping out between my barefoot toes.
“Although I had passed through the bridge many times as the youngest child in the family, that day I was not the youngest. We were bringing the newest baby, my sister*, to visit our grandmother who lived in the house on the hill just above the bridge.
“The only grandmother I ever knew was my Mom’s mother, Rachel. She always wore a bonnet and had an apron. I remember her sitting on her back porch using an old fashioned churn to make butter. Her favorite chair in the house was behind the stove with her back to the wall. She would pull out her corn cob pipe, light up and puff away.
“Sitting on my grandmother’s front porch (Rachel’s) I still (hear) the sound of cars going through the bridge, almost like the rumble of a modern big truck, except for the clickety-clack of the wooden plank floor.”
*The newest baby to which Jack Hays referred was Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver, who with her sister Martha Alice Hays Stewart provided me with much of the information for this story.
LAKE MONROE INFORMATION
Location: Monroe, Brown and Jackson Counties. Total Acreage: 13,000 acres land and 10,750 acres water. Length of Lake: 19 miles. Width of lake: 2 miles at widest point.
Maximum depth: 65 feet. Average depth: 20 feet. Office: seven miles south of Bloomington on Ind. 446.