|City/Town: • Ellaville
|Location Class: • Government
|Built: • 1925 | Abandoned: • 1983
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Hillman Bridge is a through truss bridge located in the small town of Ellaville, once a thriving sawmill and manufacturing center owned by George Franklin Drew, Florida’s governor between 1877 to 1881. Built as a federal aid project in 1925-1926 by the R.H.H. Blackwell Co. of East Aurora, N.Y., it was named “Hillman Bridge” during its construction after W.J. Hillman of Live Oak, a member of the State Road Department who had helped push for the construction of the bridge.
Winder Josephus Hillman was born on June 19, 1857, in Warren County, Georgia. His father died when he was a teenager and his brother moved to Texas in search of better opportunities. Winder attempted following his brother but made as far as Live Oak before running out of money. He decided to settle down in Live Oak, working various jobs such as carrying luggage from a local hotel to the train station and as a printer for The Banner of Liberty, a precursor of the Suwannee Democrat. He eventually began working in the naval stores business under Henry Wyse and Charles K. Dutton. When George Franklin Drew was elected into office, he established a convict lease system in the state. The state of Florida leased half of its convicts to naval stores companies to work in their turpentine camps where Hillman became a guard at one.
Within eight years, Hillman was in charge of 400 convict laborers and proved to be such a leader that he earned the nickname “Captain”. He opened up his own turpentine camp in High Springs which proved successful before a storm destroyed his operations. He opened another camp in Inverness before expanding his operations throughout Central and South Florida before becoming a director of the Consolidated Naval Stores Company of Jacksonville, the largest naval stores trader in the United States. He was dubbed the “Turpentine King” by friends and family and remained one of the largest manufacturers of turpentine in Florida for many years.
Hillman retired in 1902 and sold off most of his land and business interests. Having lived in Jacksonville for some time, he and his wife Lela moved back to Live Oak. He invested money and time in several farms throughout Suwannee County and built a road to his private farm he called Hillmonia located 13 miles south of Live Oak. The road would later be called “Hillman Highway” and is now US-129. He was an original stockholder in the First National Bank of Live Oak and organized and erected the Suwannee Hotel, a famous city landmark once located across from the Courthouse. Hillman was also vice president of the Live Oak Publishing Company which printed the Suwannee Democrat at the time. Through all his business ventures, Hillman became Suwannee County’s first millionaire.
Hillman served as a city councilman when City Hall was constructed in 1908 and later served under Live Oak native Governor Cary Hardee as the first chairman of the Florida State Road Department. He not only advocated for the building of roads throughout the state but also invested his own money into doing so. After the construction of a new truss bridge of the Suwannee River, many wanted the bridge named in his honor for his advocacy.
The State Chamber of Commerce took issue with the name just a few months before it would open to the public. They argued that naming the bridge after Hillman or Ellaville would be as distinctive to the average tourist as if naming it “Bridge #1313”. The Chamber recommended naming the bridge after the Suwanee River due to being a popular symbol of Florida or after Stephen Foster, who immortalized the Suwannee River in his song “Old Folks at Home”. Others agreed that the state would benefit more from naming it after the river itself. The Evening Independent played devil’s advocate, pointing out that another newspaper had misspelled “Suwanee” twice in the same article. If the press could misspell the name, then so could tourists, and that could be counterproductive. Despite all the arguments and discussions, the Hillman name stuck when the bridge was dedicated in 1927. A few years later, Winder Josephus Hillman died on August 29, 1931, and is buried at Live Oak Cemetery alongside his wife.
The Hillman Bridge was abandoned in 1983 when a truck carrying an overheight load drove across the bridge and got caught on one of the steel crossbeams, tearing it loose from the structure. There were already talks to replace the old bridge so the Florida Department of Transportation moved ahead with their plans, opening the new bridge in 1986. That same year, the bridge was deeded to the Florida Department of Natural Resources. Today, the bridge still stands located just down the road from the former Suwanee River Store, although it is restricted to foot and bike traffic only, and is still one of the best surviving examples of a Pratt metal-truss bridge in Florida.