Michael Hitt, dressed in a vintage World War I doughboy uniform, presented a lecture at Reinhardt University on March 28th about a tragic local World War I era incident that killed three 82nd Division soldiers. Pictured with him is Betty C. Callahan, the daughter of Nurse Winnie Frances Moore Carpenter who is credited with saving several soldier's lives at the incident.
By Larry Cavender
At the very beginning of his lecture concerning a World War I tragedy, which took the lives of three soldiers, historian Michael Hitt stated, "This was not a tragic accident, but a criminal incident." The program was held on Wednesday, March 28th at the Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University and recalled the collapse of a portion of the Steele Bridge in Cherokee County on June 16th, 1918.
A two-ton Army truck, part of a convoy transporting over fifty soldiers of the 82nd Division (later to become known as the 82nd Airborne Division), fell through the bridge and overturned in the waters of the Etowah River killing three and injuring several others, trapping them under the truck. The convoy was traveling from Camp Gordon, present-day Chamblee, to an area in Cherokee County now inundated by the Lake Allatoona reservoir. The area was then known as a place of refuge for deserters and slackers, and the convoy was dispatched to round up and arrest those deserters. Reportedly, there were dozens of deserters hiding out in the area.
Steele Bridge, a Civil War era covered bridge of wooden construction, was located in what was then a remote and isolated area of Cherokee County. Hitt said a runner was sent to seek medical help because the unit's lone medical officer was one of the three who was killed. Luckily, the runner happened upon Field's Farm where a trained nurse, Winnie Frances Moore Carpenter of the Waleska area, was visiting with friends.
Nurse Carpenter immediately rushed to the scene of the crash and offered medical aid. She was credited with saving many lives and later received a commendation from the federal government for her heroic efforts.
Hitt, who was attired in a World War I vintage doughboy uniform while presenting his lecture, explained why there is much speculation the incident was criminal.
Apparently, the deserters were forewarned about the coming of the expedition, because a later inspection revealed that several of the wooden beams supporting the floor of the bridge had been sawn in two. However, no one was ever charged with a crime in connection to the incident.
Surprisingly, little was known about the Steele Bridge collapse until Hitt, who is retired from the Roswell Police Department, began investigating. The incident has become an obsession for Hitt, and believing there should be a memorial marking the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, he began contacting organizations for help in generating interest in a memorial commemoration.
Through his efforts, and with the help of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department, and others, a memorial is planned for Saturday, June 16th, exactly 100 years to the day of the collapse. Although the bridge has long since disappeared under the waters of Lake Allatoona, the approach road still exists, and the event will take place at the end of Steele Bridge Road, located in the Bridge Mill Subdivision off Bells Ferry Road. Plans are for military honor guards with gun salutes, bands, bagpipes, and more.
The Pickens County Progress is making plans to publish an in-depth feature article on the Steele Bridge tragedy as a tribute in the May 24th, Memorial Day issue, just a few weeks prior to the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.