By Mike West
February 9, 2009
During her life, Will Allen Dromgoole was a prolific writer and poet.
While she wrote more than 7,500 poems, 5,000 essays and published 13 books, her most famous poem was “The Bridge Builder.”
Written around 1900, “The Bridge Builder” is often reprinted and quoted by motivational speakers, pastors and even the Boys Scouts. Its words grace a number of real bridges like the Bellows Fall bridge in Connecticut.
Dromgoole, 1860-1934, was born in Murfreesboro, the last child of John Easter and Rebecca Blanche Dromgoole. Her father was mayor during the Civil War and often found himself negotiating between locals and the Federal troops occupying the town.
Dromgoole changed her middle name to Allen when she was 6, and throughout her life was known as Will Allen or "Miss Will." In 1876 Dromgoole graduated from the Clarksville Female Academy and studied at the New England School of Expression in Boston.
She began her writing career after the death of her mother and will caring for her aging father.
She published her first novel, “The Sunny Side of the Cumberland,” under the name Will Allen in 1886. Her first short story was published that same year and awarded a cash prize by Youth's Companion in 1886.
Her life then took an unusual twist for the day. She studied law with her father and won terms as engrossing clerk for the Tennessee State Senate. But an unflattering series of articles she wrote about the Melungeons of East Tennessee caused her defeat in 1889 and 1891 and she relocated to Texas where she wrote for newspapers.
She returned to Tennessee in 1897 and was hired in 1902 as a staff writer for the Nashville Banner, where she wrote a popular column, “Song and Story” for 31 years.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dromgoole became one of the first (if not the first) women to join the U.S. Navy where she served as a yeoman warrant officer at Norfolk, Va.
She returned to the staff of the Banner in 1918 where she worked until her death in 1934.
Dromgoole is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesbor.
Her poem still often quoted:
The Bridge Builder
By Will Allen Dromgoogle
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”
And she wrote about Melungeons. Quite a lot, in fact. More on that to follow!