by D.J. Wilson –
Covered Bridges are an important part of our heritage and symbolize small-town America with many appearing on the National Register of Historical Places. In addition to serving as local landmarks of great significance they are appreciated by residents and tourists due to their charming appeal in picturesque settings. Harkening back to days-gone-by, they allowed travelers valuable safe passage across rivers and streams.
Built on dirt roads and sitting above winding streams, covered bridges date back to the horse-and-buggy days of the 1800’s. Some bear inscriptions which read “Cross This Bridge At A Walk”. The purpose was to minimize stress and structural damage that could occur from the pounding rhythm of horses’ hooves. The signs, which typically appeared at both ends of the bridge, even caused soldiers to break cadence when crossing. Builders designed the entrances of covered bridges to resemble that of a barn. This was to encourage horses, easily spooked by the sights and sounds of rushing water, to enter willingly. Covered bridges were known as “kissing bridges” as courting couples often stopped to steal a kiss on the bridge while passing through. According to folklore, bridges were covered so couples could go in and kiss without being seen, though they were truly built for function versus romance.
With a great abundance of timber, the earliest ones were constructed of wood and used trusses as their key structural design element. Many of the oldest bridges were built as post to pile construction, where columns called piles are used to support spans called posts. Wooden bridges lacking overhead enclosures deteriorate quickly with exposure to the elements, lasting a mere 10 to 15 years. By adding a roof to protect the structural underpinnings, builders realized bridges could stand for about 75 years. Despite having a roof serious threats including vandalism, insect damage, arson, flooding and neglect can lead to disrepair. In efforts to preserve them, bridges are renovated with steel trusses and concrete footings to increase support on the timbers.
Most covered bridges were designed to accommodate a single lane of traffic. Some, such as The Elizabethton Bridge in Tennessee, have a covered walkway. Each is unique in color, size, location and design. Pennsylvania has over 200 covered bridges, more than any state. At one point in time Pennsylvania had the longest covered bridge in the world which was located between Columbia and Wrightsville. It spanned the Susquehanna River and featured railroad tracks, a towpath for canal boats, plus a carriage, wagon and pedestrian road. Rebuilt after an ice-jam, it was eventually burned by Union soldiers during the civil war in 1863 to prevent usage by the Confederate Army. The longest covered bridge now in existence in the United States is the Smolen-Gulf Bridge which crosses the Ashtabula River in Ohio. Vermont and New Hampshire have more covered bridges per square mile than any other place in the world. Oregon has the largest number of historical covered bridges located in the western United States. Many other states have surviving bridges worthy of exploration.
Parke County, Indiana, is known as “The Covered Bridge Capital of the World”, boasting a total of 31 covered bridges with 10 retired to vehicular traffic. At one point Parke County had 52 ½ bridges which included another township’s ownership of half of one bridge. Taking great pride through preservation and enjoyment of its beloved structures, Parke County is proud to annually host The Covered Bridge Festival. This is Indiana’s largest countywide festival which takes place beginning the 2nd Friday in October and features entertainment, food, shopping and bus tours of its covered bridges. Parke County is home to The Sim Smith Bridge, which is allegedly haunted. Built in 1883, this 101 foot long bridge takes center stage in a legend where a little girl from Rockville persuaded her Uncle to let her accompany him in his buggy on a business trip. Reaching the bridge in near darkness, with a full moon high above the eastern horizon, they heard trotting horses coming through the bridge toward them. They stopped and waited to allow the others through first, but nothing appeared. The sound of the hooves suddenly faded in the distance.
Tales passed from generation to generation are not unique to Parke County. The Stowe Hollow Bridge in Vermont, also called “Emily’s Bridge”, was built in 1844. Emily wanted to marry a man her family did not approve of and planned to meet him at the bridge to elope. After waiting for hours, broken hearted Emily supposedly gave up her life and now spooks the bridge doing terrifying things like shaking cars. Some claim to have heard a woman weeping. In Frederick County, Maryland, the Roddy Road Bridge is also supposedly haunted. Built in 1856, this single span bridge measures only 40 feet long. According to history, the bridge was used during the Civil War battle and some believe it is visited by ghosts of soldiers. Though I’m fully skeptical of these tales, they remain an important part of history.
The Clarkson Bridge in Cullman County is now one of only 14 covered bridges remaining in Alabama. This 270 foot lattice-truss bridge was first built in 1904 and was used by farmers and travelers to cross Crooked Creek. The bridge was constructed by master bridge builders, one of them being an Alabama-born ex-slave, and was made of an elaborate framework of lumber in a cross pattern resembling a garden trellis. The bridge was built along the banks of the creek, near hallowed grounds of the Civil War. In 1921, a storm snapped the bridge in half. One half remained in place, and the other floated downstream. Scattered parts were saved and the bridge was repaired. In 1975, the Cullman County Commission restored the site with the help of concerned citizens and beautified the grounds for hiking and picnicking. Now, currently in need of repair due to insect damage, vandalism, and weather, efforts are once again underway to repair the bridge. Donations of time and resources are currently being accepted as County officials and historians work together to save this treasured landmark.
Covered bridges are scenic gems which add charm and romance to the countryside. Considered architectural beauties, they compliment the landscape and are worthy of attention. Show your support for these pieces of our past by appreciating, preserving, and visiting America’s iconic covered bridges today.