Builder Horace King left an elegant legacy in Alabama

From bridges to the staircase in the Alabama State Capitol to his stint as an Alabama state representative, Horace King left a legacy that endures

Horace King. Photo courtesy of The Columbus Museum.

On Feb. 3, 1846, the Alabama Legislature approved a bill of emancipation for famed builder Horace King.

Born in bondage on a South Carolina plantation in 1807, he was brought to Alabama in the early 1830s to aide in the construction of the first bridge across the lower Chattahoochee River. A talented craftsman who specialized in heavy-timber construction, King ranked among the most respected builders in the South. During his career he built an estimated 125 structures, mostly bridges, in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. 

The sturdy, gravity-defying wooden bridges of Horace King were marvels of construction. They helped to connect communities and expand commerce in the first decades of widespread white settlement along Alabama’s southeastern border. Still, we know virtually nothing about King’s early life. In the 1830s, when he was about 25, King was sold to South Carolina builder John Godwin.

King may have learned techniques of the building trade from Godwin. By most accounts, though, he seemed to possess the intuitive skills necessary to become a renowned craftsman on his own. For his part, Godwin discerned the depths of King’s abilities early on and treated him more as apprentice than an enslaved workman. Their decades-long partnership — spanning King’s time in bondage and as a free man — lasted until Godwin’s death in 1859. 

Godwin and King arrived in Columbus, Georgia, in 1832, having won the contract to build a 900-foot covered bridge across the Chattahoochee’s muddy waters. The bridge connected Columbus with a small hamlet named Girard on the Alabama side of the river. Later that year, the Alabama Legislature named Girard the first seat of newly established Russell County. Once the bridge was completed, Godwin established himself in Girard, which merged with Phenix City in 1923. He and King built many of the earliest homes and businesses there, including the first Russell County Courthouse.

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Dillingham Street covered bridge over the Chattahoochee River between Columbus, Georgia, and Girard, Alabama, built by Horace King in 1870. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Over the next decade, the pair constructed a number of other bridges across the Chattahoochee and smaller rivers in the region. These included private toll bridges in West Point, Georgia, and Eufaula, Alabama, a structure which stood until 1924. Godwin likely received a percentage of these bridge tolls and allocated a smaller portion for King, his talented, irreplaceable foreman and second.  

In the early 1840s, while Godwin remained in Girard, King raised bridges and other structures in places as far away as Columbus, Mississippi, and Wetumpka, Alabama, where he built a 600-foot bridge spanning the rocky waters of the Coosa River. Both projects were financed in part by Tuscaloosa entrepreneur and legislator Robert Jemison Jr., who enjoyed a lucrative partnership with Godwin for many years. Like Godwin, he held King in high regard. In 1845, Jemison referred to him as “the most extensive and successful Bridge Builder in the South.”

It was Jemison who ably navigated King’s emancipation bill through the halls of the legislature. The liberation of enslaved persons by government act was a rare thing during the era. In 1846, only one other Alabama man was freed in such fashion. Though the precise circumstances which led to King’s emancipation are lost to history, it seems to have been motivated by Godwin and Jemison’s desire to continue in their unique business relationship with King. Neither of the men were abolitionists, by any means; both held others in bondage. King’s biographers surmise he used his savings to pay the $1,000 security bond required by the legislation, akin to about $34,000 today. Through the skill of his own hands, the builder helped secure his freedom.  

A view of the staircase of the Alabama State Capitol. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

After the Alabama State Capitol burned in 1849, King was among those who assisted in the new construction. Since the framework for the structure was comprised of the same type of heavy timbers King was accustomed to using for bridges, he made for a natural consultant. His more delicate project atop Goat Hill was the set of spiral staircases in the capitol’s main entrance, which he completed in 1851. 

During the Civil War, officials in Georgia and Alabama pressed King into service of the Confederate cause. They tasked him with blockading the river approaches to several key cities, along with the construction of a rolling warehouse and other structures. He undertook the work with quiet reluctance, realizing there were few in southeast Alabama who shared his feelings on the war. Careful not to endanger his family or business interests, King “was as much of a Union man from beginning to the end as I dared to be,” he later recalled.  

King resumed a robust construction schedule at war’s end. He also entered public service as one of Russell County’s first African American registrars. In 1867, he helped more than 2,600 freedmen register to cast their first votes. The following year, King won election to the Alabama House of Representatives. But building projects held more sway over King’s time. He missed the first legislative session entirely. King served two consecutive terms, including time on the powerful Federal Relations Committee, which helped to navigate the oftentimes murky waters of the era. Still, King seems to have been better suited to building actual bridges than political ones. He decided against reelection in 1872.

Soon thereafter, King and his family relocated to a new settlement near LaGrange, Georgia. There he joined into a new business partnership with his four sons and daughter, who continued the King tradition of building for decades to come. Poor health slowed the pace of the patriarch’s work in his final years. Horace King died on May 28, 1885, at the age of 77. 

Visitors to Alabama’s capitol can still use the elegant spiral staircases built by a newly emancipated King more than 170 years ago. Few other structures built by his skilled hands remain. In 2017, state officials unveiled a portrait of the builder on an adjacent wall, the only such likeness of an African American man on public view in the capitol. Horace King’s staircase is a testament to his craftsmanship. His portrait is an acknowledgment of his enduring legacy.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka. 

This article appears in the February 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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