Bainbridge native retiring from Alabama’s history archive

Published 10:00 am Friday, June 22, 2012

Ed Bridges

Bainbridge native Ed Bridges has spent the last 30 years as the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, but he plans to retire in October.

During his time he has distinguished himself as a historian in many ways, including overseeing the development of a new $20 million west wing for a gallery that will trace Alabama’s history from 1700 to present time. That new wing has been named in his honor.

Although Bridges plans to retire from the director’s position on Oct. 1, he will not be leaving the building. He will occupy a smaller office, where he plans to devote his time to writing a short history of Alabama — one designed for the general audience, such as tourists and newcomers to the state.

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Ed’s own history is rooted in Brinson, where his father Henry Bridges was raised. His grandfather, known as R.L.Z. Bridges, was a physician who practiced in Brinson from 1893 to 1936. His father, Henry Bridges, practiced medicine in Bainbridge from 1947 until about 2000. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and moved his family back to Bainbridge when young Ed was 2 years old.

Bridges recalls that his father owned the old Bainbridge Hospital, and during the early 1950s his father would make house calls to the folks who were not able to get to the office. He often took his two sons, Ed and Bruce, with him, no doubt hoping they would become interested in continuing the family heritage of medicine.

As they traveled around the county his father would point out places of historical interest along the way. This sparked a strong interest in Ed for history, rather than medicine.

Ed Bridges graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1963, and one of his classmates was Sydney Cochran, who lives in Bainbridge and works as a physician.

After graduation from Furman College in Greenville, S.C., he taught history for two years before going back to further his education, eventually obtaining a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

He began working as assistant director of the Georgia Historical Society. Thirty years ago, when Alabama came calling, he moved to Montgomery to assume the directorship of the Alabama Archives. He has never looked back.

Bridges has a strong love for Alabama history, calling it “a great, remarkable and graphic story.” He remarked on how over he has become acquainted with so many people and gained so many connections that help fit events together.

“The connections start sparking, and that generates energy,” he said.

Bridges’ energy is apparent in the enthusiasm he has for his work. One of the accomplishments he treasures most is the development of a huge bronze relief map of Alabama built into the archive’s landscaped grounds. He explained that, following the construction of the west wing, the grounds were all torn up and needed to be landscaped.

“It was a brilliant landscape architect in Montgomery who came up with the concept,” he said. “The map just seems to click with people. My office window looks out over it, and on a daily basis I can see people walking on it and looking at it.” (The map can be viewed on the website: Click on “Museum,” then “virtual museum,” and then “bronze map.”)

In addition to the book he will write, Bridges is overseeing completion of an exhibit in the new 11,000-square-foot gallery in the west wing.

“It will be a collection of artifacts, presented in a way that tells a story,” he said. “It will be the story of Alabama, from earliest Indians to the last gubernatorial election.”

Bridges recently received high praise from the Archives’ Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mayor George Evans of Selma.

“Under his leadership,” Evans said, “The Archives has flourished and has done a tremendous job of documenting and preserving the state’s history for the benefit of today’s citizens and future generations.

“On a personal level, Dr. Bridges has a rare capacity to work productively with everyone he meets, regardless of their background or interests. And he has a memory better than an elephant’s.”