Appalachian Trail by County: A river, a foot bridge and Happy Feet

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Bill and Laurie took the plural form of their last name "Foot" as their trail name when they through hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1987. Known as Happy Feet, the couple says the hike was life-changing and inspired them to give back to the AT.

"We became trail maintainers, we served on the board of directors for our local club and we lead hikes and chaired committees," Laurie said. "We had great fun and made great friends doing all of that."

But Bill wanted to do more. He loved bridges. The couple would stop at every bridge the couple crossed during their hikes. Bill would pace off the bridge, examine the engineering and fall into a bridge daydream. Bill knew there was one bridge that needed work.

Back in the day, the AT crossed the James River using the narrow 501 highway bridge.

"It was dangerous," Laurie said. "It was also not keeping with the wilderness experience because you had just come out of the James River face wilderness and all of a sudden you're on this highway bridge with a hydro electric plant in front of you."

Bill thought there was a better way. When you see the present day bridge, you'll notice five railroad piers. Local man Henry Smiley owned those piers. Smiley had purchased the piers from the railroad company many years ago so he could dock his boat to them. Henry eventually sold the piers to the Foots for $1 so they could use them to build the foot bridge on.

"I guess he figured he had gotten his $124 worth of use out of them," Laurie said.

In 1991, Bill proposed the club build a more than 600-foot hiking bridge over the James River. Bill had to get a lot of agencies on board -- including the state, the federal government and the county. Bill had also never written a grant before. The fourth time was the charm in this case. After three grants were denied, he was finally able to get the funding.

"Bill was a big dream," Laurie said. "He was tenacious and so focused on this project."

But even with an approved grant it took a while for the project to get started. Laurie says the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest would not assume ownership of the finished bridge unless it owned the land the railroad piers were sitting on. Finally, through state legislation, the land swap was completed.

Nine years later, the 625-foot James River Foot Bridge was built. A dedication ceremony was held on October 14, 2000, but Bill was not there. He had died of earlier cancer that spring.

"Even though he was not able to see the finished bridge, he was ecstatic to know that it was becoming a reality," Laure says.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy wanted to dedicate the bridge to his memory and name it after him. Bill never liked names of people on AT structures. He preferred them to be named after geographical locations.

"Luckily, we had the last name of Foot," Laurie explained. "So the James River footbridge could acknowledge both the location and the man."

There is now a plaque in his memory at the south end of the bridge.


"It really warms my heart. It warms my heart every time people see the bridge and they tell me about it and they remember Bill. I just love having it here."