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Where Have All The Covered Bridges Gone?

“Bridges are metaphors for everything in life.” Jim West


I am twelve years old, a wild flower tucked behind my ear, walking across the historic 1868 hundred twenty eight foot Harpersfield covered bridge, tapping the wall of the walkway with a stick, and looking down at the roaring Grand River below me. I do not ponder on the two-span Howe truss bridge construction, or even know that it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I do not know that one day covered bridges will decrease in number ---no—I am a child, enjoying the hot sun on my face, the cool breeze and leisurely stroll, my sandalled feet clomping on the boards, the vibrations of cars under my feet passing beside me---families on their way to picnics or fishing or camping. I do not ask: Why covered bridges? Why are the bridges covered? Who builds them? How many are left? These question come more than forty yearslater when I revisit the bridges of my youth. For it is there that I begin to ponder on community:how these covered structures once served as makeshift town halls and wedding parlors--displaying their beauty, craftsmanship, practicality---how the bridges connect us.

I journey from Akron, Ohio with George, another native of Ashtabula, Ohio, a professional photographer from Hartford, Connecticut who is also coming home again to his own childhood bridges.We have two goals: to rekindle our high school acquaintance, and to shoot as many pictures of the original, restored, and replicas of 19th century covered bridges in a variety of truss constructions as we can in one day.But, first we must endure the heat: The temperature is ninety-five degrees, and the sun glares down so intensely on George’s Jeep Wrangler that a decision is made not to put down the top to enjoy the summer sun. I carry a lukewarm bottle of water that we share as we have absentmindely forgotten to bring some provisions. He unloads his Canon XSi and equipment, carrying his tripod under his arm, and I follow. I am a passenger ---a bystander—a viewer of bridges. It is a Saturday in June, but it is as if there is no one else on the dusty roads but us. George has a GPS but opts to use paper tri-fold map instead that he gets from the lobby of the Hampton Inn. Maps and details come in handy.

First, we visit the newest of Ashtabula's covered bridges, the Smolen-Gulf Bridge just opened in the fall of 2008. This 613-foot structure is the longest  covered bridge in the United States and named for John Smolen, former Ashtabula County engineer and a strong advocate for preserving the covered bridges of the county. The State Route Bridge, completed for $8 million in 1983, is one of the newer covered bridges in Ashtabula County, but an example
of how heritage continues on marking first annual Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival, held each October. It is a perfect example of preserving the beauty and craftsmanship of covered bridge iconography through reconstruction and education. We continue on our journey.

Armed now with cold Pepsi from a small mom and pop type grocery store, our next stop is the 114-foot long Town lattice Riverdale Bridge. The bridge spans the winding Grand River in Southwestern Ashtabula County. Originally constructed in 1874, the Riverdale Bridge was rebuilt in 1981 and glue  'laminate wood girders were added. Still, much of the bridge's 19th charm remains. Like any covered bridge in America, we once again note the beauty of the construction and craftsmanship of its structure. While it is enjoyable to physically stand under the protection of the roof and look up at the trusses, I realize how different all of the bridges are in appearance and construction which leads me realize that each covered bridge in America is
unique in its own right, perhaps due, in part, to practicality.

Looking out the river from the windows of a covered bridge is fresh in my mind as if I were a young girl again camping with my grandmother who parked her trailer near the bridge every summer, I now have practical questions: Why windows? I discover that if a if a bridge was built on a curve, the windows allowed visibility of oncoming horse and buggy traffic. And, why wood? Early bridges were often made from local wood because it was a plentiful resource. And, while the builders were not engineers, like many covered bridges in America, their expertise in constructing an original bridge, utilizing the best truss system for the designs is a testament to ingenuity, creativity and a bond to the land and its provisions. Sadly, given the ready availability
of steel, concrete, and other modern construction materials, most modern covered bridges are built either for the convenience of the user, rather than to protect the structure itself, or as a statement of style or design.

But why cover the bridges? That is the question I ask on our next visit is the Mechanicsville Bridge. The Mechanicsville Road Bridge is the longest single span covered bridge in Ashtabula County. The 156-foot, Howe truss bridge with arch was built over the Grand River in 1867. The bridge was renovated and opened to motor traffic in 2003. Since covered bridges are wooden, the layman of bridges might think that the cover protects the flooring of the bridge. Truth is, one of the jobs of a bridge tender in the old days was spreading snow on the floor of a covered bridge in winter so sleighs could get across. Some say the bridges were covered to prevent horses from getting spooked when they realized they were above flowing water. None of these is accurate. The answer is practicality.

What you're really trying to protect in a covered bridge are the structural members—the trusses. I do not pretend to be an expert in bridge design—it is beyond the scope of my knowledge, but I do appreciate the various beauty and practicality of the designs that keep these structures standing. This craftsmanship and practicality are again apparent on our visit to the town lattice designed Doyle Bridge built in 1968, spanning 94 feet with a height clearance of thirteen feet. Made of heavy timber, the trusses are the expensive part of the bridge, and if they fall apart due to exposure to the elements, so does the bridge. An unprotected wooden bridge will last maybe ten years. Put a cover over it, however, and it'll last for centuries. The trusses already form a boxlike framework. Tack on some rafters and shingles and siding, and there you go. The sun beats down on us as George continues to take pictures, and sadly, I wonder about the reason that there is a decrease in covered bridges.

What is happening to the bridges? What is the link from our own small hometown to other bridges in America as it relates to environment and cultural influences of covered bridges? Like the demise of many of the small towns where these bridges exist, the answers are sombering. Timothy Palmer built the prototypical American covered bridge in Philadelphia between 1800 and 1804, and over time there have been anywhere from 3,000 to 16,000, depending on who's doing the estimating. Sadly, today fewer than 2000 remain. But what is happening to them? Dale Travis elicited help in locating the lost and remaining covered bridges (complete with pictures, GPS information, and condition of the bridges in America) on his site, “The U.S.Covered Bridge List.” From his site, I roughly calculate what is happening to the bridges: The biggest reason for their disappearance from their original site are bridges being moved for personal residences or for admissions to various sightseeing venues.

Some examples:In Florrispant, Colorado foxes use a covered bridge to get to their dens on the opposite side.In Maryland, at the Fairhaven Retirement Center you have to ask permission in advance to cross the bridge. Another example is admission price in Anaheim at the Disneyland Minituare Railroad. In Georgia, country singer Travis Tritt has a bridge on his private property. Finally there are bridges purchased to live in a residence: One sold for $5 in Ohio.

Most of the covered bridges that are listed as gone (not moved from original site) have been destroyed by natural elements such as hurricane, tornado, flood or arson. And, while many of the brochures and articles claimed that vandalism is one of the biggest reasons we are losing covered bridges, Travis’s figures prove otherwise. I calculate that fewer than ten percent of the bridges have bridges have been destroyed by arson. So what can we learn about these cultural structures? It is a very small look into the world of covered bridges that George and I have crossed on our journey, but like the bridges of America’s past, friendship, too, is a road. And it puts me in awe when I think of how these treasures of linkage to the past, these roads to imagination and community and environment --- bridges once made by hand from local natural resources where people gathered and travelled to see one another under are decreasing in number due to nature’s elements, repurposing of bridges, vandalism or disrepair.

Luckily, I do feel some happiness that most of these structural icons existing across rivers and streams, gulf and gully, are only a drive away no matter where you live. I trust that preservation, not destruction of memory and structure, will keep this fading roof of architectural history above us.

kathleenlovesbridges kathleenlovesbridges 51-55 Aug 10, 2012

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