Eight decades ago, crews began constructing the new Henley Bridge across the Tennessee River near downtown Knoxville. The bridge opened to traffic at the beginning of 1932.
The New Year for 2011 begins with the closure the prominent Knoxville landmark for renovations that are scheduled to take two and a half years to complete. There are financial incentives for the contractor to finish the bridge construction six months ahead of schedule, which means it could be completed before 2013.
When the bridge finally reopens, chances are the new bridge will not resolve an old debate over its correct name. Although the plaque on the bridge clearly labels it the "Henley Bridge," you are just as likely to hear residents refer to the multi-arched structure as the "Henley Street Bridge."
"There is some controversy over the name of the bridge," said Yvette Martinez, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. "Anyone familiar with this area's history will tell you there are those who do feel very strongly about this topic. Many people are passionately against calling it the Henley 'Street' Bridge."
Martinez said the habit of calling the Henley Bridge the Henley Street Bridge started before the bridge was even built.
"Since the 1920s, it has been called both names. In our historical documents, including the plans and the designs for this bridge as well as media reports, it was called both the Henley Bridge and the Henley Street Bridge," said Martinez.
Although the name "Henley Bridge" is not chiseled in stone, it may as well be. The north side of the bridge features two large plaques from when the bridge was dedicated. The top title line on both plaques features the words "Henley Bridge" in large letters. Yet, even this does not resolve the issue for those who so passionately fight the inclusion of the word "street" in the bridge's moniker.
"On the same plaque that calls it the Henley Bridge, it also thanks the 'Henley Street Bridge Committee' for its work on the project. Both terms appear on the plaque," said Martinez.
Whatever the correct name may be, each option begins with the word "Henley." The bridge is named for Colonel David Henley, who served as an information officer for General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. After the war, Henley began a lifelong career with the new nation's War Department. He moved to Knoxville in 1793 and worked with the department in charge of Indian Affairs until 1801. At that point he returned to the nation's capital where he died in 1823.
The City of Knoxville named Henley Street for the Colonel. When the bridge was constructed as a crossing for the Tennessee River from Henley Street, the bridge was also named in Henley's honor. Right or wrong, from the outset people have combined the two locations' names and referred to it as the Henley Street Bridge.
"We wanted to be consistent and historically accurate in our communication for this project before it started. We called our historian at TDOT and asked her specifically, 'Is it the Henley Bridge or the Henley Street Bridge?' She said after investigation, it is both," said Martinez. "It is whatever you are comfortable with. However, local historians prefer the term 'Henley Bridge' because the plaque calls it the Henley Bridge. We respect their feelings and for the purposes of this reconstruction project, we are going to continue to call it the Henley Bridge."
The decision to choose Henley Bridge rather than Henley Street Bridge was made easier by the uneven reaction each term provokes.
"Not too many people get upset if you call it the Henley Bridge. It is only when you say Henley Street Bridge that you get a negative reaction. We respect their fervor for history and everyone knows exactly where we are talking about when we say the Henley Bridge. Omitting the word 'street' does not cause any confusion and Henley Bridge is historically accurate," said Martinez.
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