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Chilhowie low-water bridge removed to improve fishing, river conditions

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Chilhowie bridge

The low-water concrete bridge across the Middle Fork Holston River off Lee Highway at the edge of Chilhowie was called the “Miller Bridge” due to its proximity to a former store. Local residents remembered how people would buy their beer at Miller’s and go across the highway to fish from the bridge.

A popular fishing spot in Chilhowie has been changed and hopefully enhanced by the removal of an obsolete low-water concrete bridge.

Called “Miller’s Bridge” because of its proximity to a former store, local residents say people used to purchase beer from Miller’s store and then cross Lee Highway to fish from the bridge.

Some say the fishing was good on one side of the bridge but not so much on the other. That may be because of sediment build-up behind the bridge, said Melanie Carter with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency coordinating removal of this bridge and a concrete dam in Marion over the past two weeks.

The bridge once led to a farm on the other side of the Middle Fork Holston River, land that is now home to several industries. A rock structure on the Lee Highway side of the former bridge has a plaque dedicating the site to Hezekiah Love Bonham, “a pioneer in agricultural advancement. Thirty years ago on this farm,” reads the plaque, “he conducted the first large scale demonstration of pasture fertilization in this country. The results of this demonstration have been of inestimable value to the farmers of this and adjoining states.” The plaque was placed by the Southwest Virginia Agricultural Association on April 8, 1950.

The river was once home to a multitude of mussels -- freshwater clams -- that help filter the water and disperse nutrients for fish and other aquatic life.

Carter said the former bridge, which was removed this past weekend, was apparently floored on a mussel shoal and then a second layer of concrete was later added. Metal culverts between the layers allowed water to pass through, but the bridge had collapsed and broken up in places over the years, creating a blockage in the river that sometimes contributed to flooding at the site.

The shells of several now rare species of mussels were found embedded in the concrete of the bridge, Carter said, such as Slab Side Pearly Mussel, which is federally listed and the Tennessee Pig Toe Mussel, which is state listed.

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The mussels must have been plentiful at one time, said Carol Doss, coordinator with the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, as local residents said they were often used as fish bait. The UTRR is a partner in these projects in Chilhowie and Marion.

“In the current conditions you really have to hunt to find these mussels,” Carter said. “Maybe they’ll be back? That’s what we’re hoping for. Downstream is a mussel shoal with some threatened and endangered species on it. So we’re working to protect that. It’s our motivation to keep going on the river conservation, knowing that they used to be plentiful so we keep going to try and bring them back.”

The recent projects in Marion and Chilhowie have re-opened more than 15 miles of stream and river habitat for multiple endangered species and recreational fish species.

A dam behind the former Natalie Knitting Mill in Seven Mile Ford is also on the list of structures the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove in order to open up and improve fishing on the Middle Fork Holston River.

The projects are expected to enhance recreational boating and fishing and reduce impacts of flooding, protecting property and enhancing values as well as addressing local concerns about public safety near these obsolete structures.

The projects in Marion and Chilhowie are being conducted through a partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Program in Regions 4 and 5 and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Region 5, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, private landowners, the towns of Marion and Chilhowie, Smyth County Economic Development Authority, Emory & Henry College Environmental Studies Program and Norfolk Southern Railroad for crossing assistance in Marion.

Funding for the two projects comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish Passage Program and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, with additional support and resources from the project partners.

The Upper Tennessee River Roundtable is planning a litter cleanup day at the Marion site on Saturday, May 2, beginning at 10 a.m. Volunteers wanting to participate should meet at the Riverwalk parking lot above the amphitheatre wearing long pants, gloves and sturdy closed-toe shoes. Cleanup supplies will be provided. A cleanup day is also being considered for the Chilhowie site.

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