On January 7-8, 1998, torrential rains struck northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina. Carter County, Tennessee was hit especially hard, with widespread flooding and seven deaths caused by ten inches of rain during a 24 hour period. The lower two bridges on the A.T. in Laurel Fork Gorge were completely destroyed. The center span of the upper bridge (the Koonford Bridge) was also destroyed, but temporary repairs were quickly made by TEHCC on January 17, 1998. A temporary blue-blazed route for the A.T. to bypass the two destroyed bridges was completed in May 1998.
Because Laurel Fork Gorge is in a wilderness area, the two replacement bridges had to be rustic in appearance, and constructed using non-mechanized means. Due to the length of the stringers (40 feet plus) and wilderness area requirements, TEHCC informed the Forest Service that we could not replace the stringers (the long poles that are the backbone of the bridge). The Forest Service chose to use a private contractor to replace the bridges, selected a bridge design by October 1998, and set June 1999 for completion of the replacement bridges.
The new bridges were completed and opened for hikers on April 28, 1999, and the temporary blue-blazed route has been closed.
An article and photos appeared in the Elizabethton (Tennessee) Star newspaper on March 22, 1999 showing a team of mules dragging the stringers to the bridge sites; permission to post the article here was obtained. The photos were taken and e-mailed to TEHCC by Eric McCarty.