Learning About Love Locks

When it comes to writing newspaper columns, I try to plan ahead. On a recent visit to the Smoky Mountains, plans included traversing two very different swinging bridges and then writing back-to-back columns comparing and contrasting my experiences. How long were the bridges? How high? How scary?

But when I discovered love locks, the second column (this one) took a different turn.

What, you might ask, is a love lock? Until I walked across Townsend’s Dark Island swinging bridge in late November, I’d never even heard of such a thing. But let me back up a bit. After I crossed Gatlinburg’s spectacular Skybridge–the longest swinging bridge in North America–and took copious notes, the first column (which was in last Sunday’s paper) practically wrote itself. Later that day, I visited the quaint swinging bridge located just a stone’s throw from Townsend’s Little River Railroad and Lumber Museum. As you might guess, it was a vastly different experience.

Rebuilt in 1997 after floods washed away its predecessor, the Dark Island bridge is an old- school steel-and-wood structure with a satisfying bounce that’s not at all scary. I’d been there several times before. When the weather’s warm, you can stand on the bridge and watch tourists float down the Little River on inner tubes. You can picnic on the riverbank or fish for trout.

Interestingly, no one seems quite sure who owns the bridge, which is sometimes called “the bridge to nowhere.” The public entrance is inside the Townsend city limits. The other entrance is on private property in Blount County. You’re supposed to turn around before stepping off the bridge so as not to trespass. A dispute about who was responsible for performing and paying for some minor bridge repairs closed the bridge for most of last June. Thankfully, the disagreement was resolved and the Blount County Highway Department fixed the bridge in time for July Fourth crowds to enjoy it.

Dusk was fast approaching by the time I got to the bridge. Right away, I noticed several padlocks attached to the chain link fencing that serves as the bridge’s walls. “What’s up with these?” I asked the friend I was hiking with. He knows a lot about fixing things, and I thought maybe the locks had something to do with the recent bridge repair.

“They’re love locks,” he said. “Like the ones tourists hung all over that bridge in Paris.”

Huh??? I immediately pulled out my phone and went into research mode. I learned that a cheesy 2006 novel (soon followed by a movie) entitled “I Want You” by Italian writer Frederico Moccia started the love lock craze. In it, a two young sweethearts pledge their undying love for one another by writing their names on a padlock, attaching it to a bridge and then throwing the key into the river below. This romantic idea quickly spread from Italy to France and then around the globe.

The world’s most famous love lock bridge is the Pont des Arts in Paris, which crosses the Seine River. In 2015, officials removed an estimated one million padlocks—with a combined weight of 45 tons–from the bridge and took measures to keep visitors from hanging any more. It seems that the weight of all those locks can create structural damage severe enough to cause bridges to collapse. Keys thrown into waterways create serious environmental problems. Critics opine that love locks are nothing but litter, ruining the beauty of the bridges they’re attached to.

Those arguments haven’t deterred at least some of the sweethearts who cross the Dark Island swinging bridge in Townsend. Sooner or later, someone’s going to have to cut those locks off before they cause problems. As to whether it will be the city or the county is anyone’s guess.

(December 8, 2019)