Many passersby on Blountville Highway may consider the pair of arches lining the road between Bristol and Blountville an entryway into the city, but the history behind these structures may surprise you.
While some of the details about the origin of the arches are still unknown, the Bristol Historical Association has been able to piece together a rough history of these longstanding figures.
Neither structure features any identifying markers to detail their history, but their medieval architecture, location and geological makeup provide a glimpse into the story behind the archways.
The location of the arches may hint they were built as an entry point into the Twin City, but association member Susan Long says that couldn’t have been the case. At the time, the arches were constructed, the city limits on the Tennessee side had not reached the old Giant Plaza, and in 1941, Bristol, Virginia, had only annexed to where the old Bristol Hospital was located, she said.
The figures were constructed around the same time that Bristol Municipal Stadium — now known as The Stone Castle — was built by the Works Progress Administration, an organization started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal program, according to Tim Buchanan, a historian with the association. Construction on the landmark was completed in October 1936, according to Bristol Herald Courier archives.
However, the arches were not included as part of the 1987 application to add the castle to the National Register of Historic Places.
The façade was created using the same limestone materials as The Stone Castle, which was mined from Beaver Creek a few years earlier by other New Deal organizations as part of a flood control project. Long says the limestone likely came from the abandoned quarry across from the Volunteer Parkway Imaging Center.
The architectural style of the structures even mirrors the unique style used for the construction of the castle. Buchanan said he likes to believe the arches were installed as a gateway into the castle, which would match the structure’s medieval theme.
There were several other WPA projects under construction in Bristol throughout this time period, including work on Watauga State Park, which was set to be in the same location as Steele Creek Park. And while the arches and the park are in the same area of the city, evidence suggests the arches were built before the park project began in 1939.
Buchanan also mentioned that another set of similarly styled arches used to be on the other side of the city along Bluff City Highway. However, those arches were torn down when the highway was widened several years ago. The limestone was repurposed as part of the entrance to Shelby Hills Cemetery, according to Buchanan, but was replaced with newer material two years ago.
And while little is known about the origin of these historic archways, Long said many residents have shared stories of a “dancing bear” that was often seen at the gateposts. A nearby gift shop even sold “Mike the Bear” figurines, she added.