The Rotherwood Bridge

rotherwood bridge
The Holston River as seen over a century ago.

The Rotherwood Bridge has seen several incarnations, but one fact is true of them all: every crossing sees more action than perhaps any other bridge in the region. Perhaps it is environmental influences, dangerous road conditions, or something else entirely natural, but it’s no wonder why every bridge garners the title of “haunted.” Here’s a brief glimpse into the history.


Robbery/Murder/Suicide/Accidental Deaths


Mrs. E. M. Geiger

In July, Mrs. E. M. Geiger stunned the area when she flung herself from the bridge into the shallows 100 feet below. Those who knew her said she’d been despondent over prolonged ill-health.

Geiger called a taxi around ten in the morning. She went to visit her friend, Mrs. W. R. Bellamy. She handed Bellamy her diamond ring and took off. Bellamy knew something was wrong and immediately started calling for help. The taxi driver, Bailey Light, dropped Geiger off on the bridge. He said he assumed she was visiting the Dobyns family. She wrote him a check for the fare and he drove off.

Her hat was found upright on the riverbank below. The lead pencil she used to write the check was still inside.


Frank L. Lilly

Frank L. Lilly was a prominent banker in Kingsport. He drowned himself in the Holston River, near the Rotherwood Bridge. He reason was also prolonged bad health.

W. B. Dykes, S. J. Ross, and Ross’s wife, fished on the river when Lilly was there. They talked to him for about an hour about his wife and his health. They said he appeared to be entirely rational and coherent. The only remotely negative information they obtained from him was his inability to eat foods beyond broth or soup. He told Ross and his wife they could have his car.

Everyone watched him wade in, but by the time they realized he was under the water, he was gone. Lilly walked in the water with a balloon tied to his arm so they could find his corpse.


Norman G. Hutton was a resident of Kingsport. His car was stolen on December 20. It was later found abandoned near Rotherwood Bridge.


In 1947, Ray Stallard and Garrett C. Alvis went on trial for the murder and armed robbery of Alvin Renfro. Laurence Renfro said he last saw his brother on November 30. At the time, he was going to Roanoke, Virginia, to purchase a car for the family’s car lot in Cleveland, Tennessee. He didn’t see his brother again until after they pulled his corpse from Cherokee Lake.

Alvis accused Stallard of murder and disposing the body while he was in jail. The crime occurred 300 yards from Rotherwood Bridge. Renfro was shot twice in the back and once in the head.

Eventually, the authorities narrowed it down. Renfro was killed on December 12, while returning home with the car. Stallard and Alvis, both former Hawkins County deputies, held Renfro up on the bridge and executed him up the river. The cold-blooded murder was featured in several “true detective” stories. Both men were convicted and both were sentenced to 99 years each. Attempts to obtain a new trial were denied.


Coleman Kassem drowned near Rotherwood Bridge. The Bristol resident, and World War II Veteran, owned and operated Coleman’s Cafe. He was fishing in the river with his 4-year-old nephew. He waded into a spot where he fell into deep water with strong currents. The nephew said he tried to throw his uncle his fishing line, but he couldn’t catch it. Rescue workers pulled Kassem’s body from the water an hour and a half later.


In June, Ervin Barnett reported his motorcycle was stolen. The authorities immediately began the search, but they didn’t have to go far. Robert Jenkins collided with a turning truck on Rotherwood Bridge, while he rode Barnett’s motorcycle. He was hospitalized and arrested as soon as he was released. Barnett felt so sorry for him he refused to prosecute.


Floyd Brown crashed into the North Fork of the Holston at Rotherwood in November. Witnesses of the accident kept contradicting one another in their stories and not even Brown could recall exactly what happened. He survived the accident, but broke his left arm and several ribs. It took over a year to find the men who rescued Brown. J. F. Archer, Charles Patrick, and Henry Hall all won awards for their efforts to rescue the injured man.


Two train engines, carrying seven cars, wrecked on the railroad track near Rotherwood Bridge. The head-on collision tore up nearly 300 feet of track. Twelve train employees escaped unharmed.


In December, the authorities were trying to find a man who was holding up cars on the bridge. His last job was done around ten in the evening. Authorities only knew he wore a tan raincoat and he came to the area on a bus. No one ever witnessed him again and his victim count was not established.


Guy and Ruth Harrell experienced marital issues in February. Guy’s jealousy was blamed for initiating the ordeal. Guy demanded Ruth leave that Sunday night. He’d already taken their four children to his sister’s house. Ruth had been asleep and refused to leave. He set fire to their bed and forced her out. She quickly dressed and fled to stay with her friend.

A few hours later Guy showed up and nearly dragged her to his car. The two went driving. They stopped near Rotherwood Bridge and Guy brandished a pistol. He threatened that one of them was going to die. Ruth quickly grabbed the firearm and the two wrestled for control of the piece. Somehow, during the struggle, the gun went off. Guy’s was fatally wounded. Ruth rushed to the driver’s side of the vehicle and lost the gun on the way. She pushed him over and sped to the nearest police station. She said the police could get him to the hospital before she could.

The police took the wounded man onto the hospital, but he was dead by the time they arrived. Ruth was brought up on trial for killing him, but she was acquitted. This was not the end of her controversy.

Jake B. Sells was a Golden Glove boxer in 1955. The police brought him in during June for shooting his girlfriend. The couple had been dating and, on that particular night, they were heavily drinking. Sells put a single bullet into his gun and snapped it a few times. He began slinging the piece, but the single bullet found its way into the chamber. His girlfriend was shot above the left breast. The bullet made a clean exit from the body.

She was taken to the hospital to recover. Sells was arrested and taken to jail. He didn’t see his future as a positive one. While incarcerated, he found a shard of broken glass. He tried to slash his own throat, but was unsuccessful.

The mother of five soon recovered and didn’t press charges. She said he’d been drunk and was talking about a suicide pact when it happened. The police believed it was an accidental shooting and eventually Sells was acquitted. His girlfriend was Ruth Harrell, acquitted of shooting her husband two years earlier.

It was not the end for Jake Sells, either. In 1961, he was traveling on highway 11-W. Two men flagged him down, but one of them remained hidden until he got out of the car. The two beat him up and robbed him. The bigger man choked him until he passed out. When he woke, they were gone and his wallet was laying on the driver’s seat. They were never apprehended.


A boat was found capsized near the Rotherwood Bridge. The rescue squad was called in, but no information was found. There were no occupants around and the boat owner remained unknown.


William Daniel Hart was stopped on Rotherwood Bridge in July. He was beaten and robbed by three men, who traveled in a car with Ohio license plates. The men were never apprehended.


Automobile/Bridge Accidents


J. S. Bachman and Ben Duff were killed in a car wreck on Rotherwood Bridge in November. Guy S. Pierce was seriously injured. The remaining passengers, Shackford Richmond, Charlie Hamblen, Kelly Ledbetter, and A. C. Easley all sustained injuries.

Around 8:15, J. Fred Johnson heard the crash. He was visiting the Dennis family in Rotherwood. He was the first man to arrive at the scene.

Bachman’s head was crushed and his jugular was severed. He’d gone through the windshield and sliced his throat, ear-to-ear, in the process. Duff fractured his skull and crushed his face from forehead to chin. Pierce was not only hurled from the car, he was thrown over the bridge and laid nearly 60 feet below. Ledbetter and Hamblen were both unconscious. Easley was the only man awake.

There was never any real solution to the puzzling crash. Easley, who owned the car, said Duff had been driving. Guy Pierce supported the statement, at first. When the next individual asked, Pierce said Easley was driving.

There was no alcohol found at the scene and none of the men was inebriated. It was eventually said there were two points of impact. The first impact was 28 feet from the west end of the bridge. The car hit with such force that it broke several 2-inch iron pipes in the railing. The heavy steel trusses were all that kept the car from plummeting over the side. Duff and Bachman were thrown during this impact. Duff went face-first into the railing and Bachman was thrown out through the windshield.

The car ricocheted off the truss and landed towards the north side of the bridge, where Pierce was flung over the bridge. The accident happened on Bachman’s 23rd birthday.


In July, a female called the offices of the Kingsport Times to report a bad wreck near Rotherwood Bridge. A young lady had been killed. The reporter called the police, the hospital, and discovered that no such wreck had occurred.

Later on that year, H. H. Hicks drove off the bridge.


W. L. Stanley plunged his car over the embankment at the east end of Rotherwood Bridge. Three were killed in the accident and six were injured. The chauffer lost control of the vehicle due to loose rock on the road.


A car with Washington license plates collided with a vehicle that had Georgia license plates, just west of Rotherwood Bridge. Eight were injured, four seriously, but no fatalities. Both cars were speeding and one vehicle in the wreck caught fire. By the time authorities doused the flames, the car was reduced to a charred frame.


P. B. Bradshaw overturned his car near Rotherwood Bridge in January. He sustained numerous injuries, but survived.

Shortly after Bradshaw’s accident, a truck and trailer carrying paper became a towering inferno near Rotherwood Bridge. Authorities were at a loss, but eventually, assumed it was due to the fuel. The driver had recently filled the fuel tanks. They believed fuel had somehow overflowed and hit the hot exhaust pipes. The resulting flames reached as high as 20 feet.


A “Model A” was found abandoned near Rotherwood Bridge. The occupants abandoned the vehicle and disappeared.


In December, Ruby Haygood lost control of her car when it hit a patch of ice. Her automobile crashed on Rotherwood Bridge. Despite having a fractured skull and remaining critical for some time, she recovered.


A span of the Rotherwood Bridge, 157-feet in length, collapsed around eleven the night of June 7. The collapse took five vehicles with it, their escapes were hailed as a miracle. The bridge standing at the time had been constructed in 1913. E. G. Trent was 27 at the time. He drove a “L and C Fruit Company” truck. He said he could feel the bridge give way. Many injuries were sustained, but none was serious.


The collapse was fixed by August, when D. A. Maples crashed into the rail. He was painfully injured by glass, but his wounds weren’t fatal.


A Terraplane Coupe was found ear Rotherwood Bridge in February, parked beside a tree. Police stopped to examine the vehicle and found three bullet holes in the glass and one of the seats was drenched with blood. The only thing established was the car belonged to Garnie Winstead of Rogersville. No details were ever established as to who was shot, or what happened that night.


Winstead didn’t escape the legal system. In June, he was charged with the murder of Hawkins County Deputy Sheriff Drew Harrell. Harrell had pulled Winstead over for suspected drunk driving. When the deputy was beside the vehicle, Winstead sped off. The officer gave chase for a time, and ended up trying to latch on to Winstead’s moving vehicle by standing on the running board of the driver’s side.

The car ended up wrecking and pinning Harrell beneath. Winstead was charged because he didn’t stop when the officer was on the car, but instead increased his speed. He was arrested and made bond, but the drama didn’t stop.

Winstead was out in Rogersville in early July of 1937. A man named Jay Lawson opened fire on him in the middle of the street. Winstead was shot three times in the abdomen, one bullet pierced his liver. It is ironic that his vehicle found near Rotherwood Bridge that February also had three bullet holes. It was thought for several days Winstead would die. Four weeks later, he was released from the hospital.

The jury acquitted Lawson for his attempted murder, stating it related to the death of Drew Harrell. Winstead’s charges were reduced from murder, to involuntary manslaughter, and he was sentenced to two years.


A few months later, Sam Gordon wrecked near Rotherwood Bridge.


Pat Hicks, and auto salesman of Kingsport, died in an accident on Rotherwood Bridge. Authorities believed his car skidded across the slick road and plowed into the bridge. The car skidded around 100 yards and folded on impact when it hit the bridge. The point-of-impact was the driver’s area.


Mrs. Harry Bateman ran into a truck on Rotherwood Bridge. She survived with minor injuries.


Cephus Smith, an African-American World War II Veteran, wrecked at Rotherwood Bridge. His car plunged down a 35-feet embankment. He later died at Mountain Home Hospital. All three passengers survived with minor injuries.


Hubert L. Sandidge died in an accident on Rotherwood Bridge.


A freak accident occurred on Rotherwood Bridge, in March. Ice was blamed for the incident. Two cars slid into one another, then two more crashed into those. In total, seven cars were involved in the accident. Five of them were totaled and towed away. Three people were injured, but none seriously.


In November, eight people were injured when a truck and three cars collided on Rotherwood Bridge.


A chain-reaction wreck occurred on Rotherwood Bridge in July. Seven vehicles were involved in the pile-up, including two gas trucks. Fortunately, only three were taken to the hospital due to injuries.


James Lacy Marshall had been drinking when he hit the car driven by Charles Cupp, east of Rotherwood Bridge. It was a head-on collision. Charles Cupp was listed as serious when he arrived at Holston Valley. The husband and father suffered from internal injuries.

His wife Edith, 28, as well as daughters Brenda, 6, and Barbara, 4, all died before they arrived at Holston Valley Hospital. Marshall’s passenger, Hassie Lee Bentley, barely survived the incident.

Marshall was a plant worker and immediately taken to jail. He was charged with three counts of manslaughter due to his drunken state. He was convicted on July 12, 1957. The jury recommended sentences of 120 days for each count of manslaughter.


Donald Carter Davis was killed in a wreck, just west of Rotherwood Bridge, when his car collided with a tractor-trailer. The car was demolished.


A family vacationing from New York crashed into the tree beside Rotherwood Bridge. All survived.


A two-car accident happened on Rotherwood Bridge on January 3. The bridge had iced over. Charley Poe died. Victor McNeese and Edith Carter both sustained injuries.


A vehicle swerved around two others that were parked on Rotherwood Bridge. Unfortunately, the passing car hit head-on with an oncoming truck. Eight were injured, but none seriously. The two men parked on the bridge were both fined.


Freddie W. Jennings was 27 in September. His car ran off the road near the east end of Rotherwood Bridge and his car plunged 25-feet down the embankment. He was dead by the time his body reached Holston Valley Hospital.


A man and woman stood on Rotherwood Bridge as they discussed a mild fender-bender they had just experienced. A car flew by and hit them both. Both survived.







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