I’ve been thinking about the Flat Bridge that spans the deceptively mighty Rio Cobre within the Bog Walk Gorge in St Catherine. I remembered many times, just before we drove over the bridge (or as the driver myself), mentally saying a small prayer asking the Lord for a safe journey across the infamous Flat Bridge. After all, everyone spoke of crossing the Flat Bridge with trepidation and excitement at the same time.
So this got me thinking: What are the top five facts about the Flat Bridge we ought to know? From the origins of this famous bridge to the introduction of the traffic lights in 1998, here are five facts about this legendary bridge in Jamaica’s history.
1. Flat Bridge is one of the oldest bridges in Jamaica.
Although it isn’t known when exactly the bridge was built, it’s been estimated that Flat Bridge was constructed a little after 1724, of course using the labour of enslaved people to build the bridge. Historian, Edward Long, In Vol. II of his History of Jamaica (1774), wrote the following description of the Rio Cobre and its bridge that eventually became known as the Flat Bridge:
The river abounds with excellent mullets, mudfish, eels, calapever, jew-fish, craw-fish, and prawns. It has only one bridge, which crosses it in the road leading towards Sixteen-mile-walk. This bridge is flat, and composed of planks on a frame of timber-work, which rests upon two sexangular piers, and two buttresses projecting from the banks, constructed with piles, and braces interlaced with masonry. In great floods, the river has been known to rise several feet above the floor without injury, notwithslanding the vast pressure of so large a column of water. This is ascribed to the resistance of the water below or under the flooring, which enables it to sustain this weight above.
2. Flat Bridge has been the main link connecting the north and south sections of the island since the 1770s.
From very early the Flat Bridge played a very important role in the colony’s growing plantation economy. For instance, in 1791, the Parish Vestry agreed to pay “the necessary temporary repairs done to the Bridge to make it passable for the present” as along it the produce from the estates were transported to the wharves on the south coast. As such Way Wardens (road surveyors) were appointed to ensure this very important passage was always in good repair (Jamaica Journal 1983). It should be noted here that from the early Spanish colonial days, a mule trail was carved through the Gorge along the course of the Rio Cobre.
3. Enslaved labourers were used to maintain the Flat Bridge and Bog Walk Gorge.
The 16 plantations once located in the surrounding area were obligated to send one out of every 50 enslaved persons to work on the River Road (which we now call the Bog Walk Gorge), or Sixteen Mile Walk Road as it was also called, to maintain the roadway and the bridge. This was of course dangerous work, which resulted in many enslaved persons being crushed to death as a result of falling boulders and drowning in the river. According to Lance Neita (2011): “On a certain day at noon, legend has it that the Flat Bridge is a gathering place for the ghosts of the departed slaves who died during its construction.”
4. The Flat Bridge was initially built without railings, and remains so today.
In her journal of her stay in Jamaica with her husband, then Governor of Jamaica, between 1801-1815, Lady Maria Nugent (1905, pg. 84) noted the following: “About half way through the walk, which is six miles long, there is a most beautiful but tremendous bridge to pass, composed of logs and earth, and without railing or defence of any sort.”
In the twentieth century metal and then wooden handrails were built onto the bridge but these did not last very long: the flooding of the river always washed these away. Semi-circular spheres are now the only barriers on the bridge itself.
5. Traffic Lights were installed in 1998.
In 1998, traffic lights were installed at both ends of the bridge to better regulate the movement of vehicles across the Bridge. Previously, it was a battle of wills to see which vehicle from either side of the bridge would get across before the other, many times resulting in altercations on the bridge itself, with neither driver willing to back down. This is reminiscent of that opening scene from The Harder They Come where the country bus and the truck met head on in the middle of the Grande Hole Bridge on the junction of St Mary and St Andrew,* horns blaring at each other.
So there you have it folks: Five facts you should know about the Flat Bridge.
Question: Do you have any memories of the Flat Bridge you’d like to share?
Until next time…
Hakewill, James (1825). A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica from Drawings Made in the Years 1820 and 1821. London: Hurst and Robinson, Pall-Mall; E. Lloyd, Harley Street.
Long, Edward (1774). The History of Jamaica, Vol. II. London: Printed for T. Lowndes in Fleet-Street.
Neita, Lance (2011). One Of The Seven Wonders Of Jamaica. The Gleaner, Thursday, September 1, 2011.
Nugent, Maria and Cundall, Frank (1907). Lady Nugent’s Journal. London: Adam & Charles Black.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Sovcik, Jozef (2009). Flat Bridge, Jamaica via Wikimedia Common.
*Thanks to Jamaican Echoes reader, Willis J. Knight Jr., for the clarification on the name of this bridge from the “The Harder They Come.”