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Warm Wooden Spans - Covered Bridges of Ohio.

The covered bridges of Ohio span more than the rivers and streams lacing the state's meadows and woodlands. They span time. They reach from yesterday to today and even tomorrow, for they're still being built and rebuilt. There are many stories connected with these bridges and the innovative people who built them, some as colorful as the autumn foliage enfolding them in season. In the words of one romantic: "A covered bridge is a poem stretched across a river."

It is a relief and a revelation to see the careful restoration of these irreplaceable artifacts, originally handcrafted by the water's edge. Too many have been lost to time and neglect. It is also exciting to see new covered bridges being built for today's traffic; and it is rather amazing to see rehabilitated covered bridges still carrying traffic today as they did over 170 years ago. There are enthusiasts for each type.

Richard Allen, who is probably the most knowledgeable person on the subject today, comments: "It seems to me that there should be a place for all, though the covered bridge hobbyists now seem to be separating and making distinctions for 'old-time/authentic,' 'rebuilds,' and privately built 'garden variety' roofed structures without a stick of trusswork.

"Personally, the only thing I dislike and decry is some group or individual building a replica covered bridge and claiming nonexistent historical accuracy, deliberately endeavoring to mislead and dull the sensitivity of generations to come."

The nineteenth century was the heyday for Ohio's covered bridges. In 1798, Congress authorized Ebenezer Zane to cut a road (or swath) through southern Ohio. A couple of horses could make their way through what was known as Zane's Trace, but travelers still had to ford streams, of which there were many. So when Congress allocated money to extend the Cumberland (National) Road into Ohio in the 1820s, it provided a major impetus to covered bridge building, as this road was to be a good twenty feet wide, enough for Conestoga wagons. Prior to this, settlers heading west often floated their wagon trains down the Ohio River.

The earliest Ohio covered bridge may date from 1809; one was noted at John Bever's Mill near the Pennsylvania border then. Many covered bridges were built close to mills in order to access their products. Often they took the name of the mill, although at times they were named after the largest nearby landowner or other things. Old Mr. Meany covered bridge represented its short-tempered toll taker; another, Wizard Oil, was named for the ad painted on its side.

Through darkness to light

How did these "old wooden tunnels," as Allen sometimes calls them, come to be, and why does Ohio have so many? Early bridges were simple: felled logs thrown across a stream, topped with wooden planks or small limbs. These often gave way or sagged under heavy weights.

Trusses (rigid supporting frames) of simple triangles--nature's most rigid shape--were soon developed. As long as a triangle's corners are strong, it will hold. These trusses were placed below bridges at first, but that subjected them to high-water damage. Then a doubled wooden triangle with a post between (kingpost) was used above a short span. When weight was placed on the bridge floor, the angled members of the triangle pushed harder into the edges, or abutments, of the bridge, making it stronger. The building of stone abutments became a busy business. Unless the wooden truss was covered, exposure to weather, particularly snow, rotted the joints. To protect against this, short spans with low wooden trusses were boxed in or covered and called "pony trusses."

Next came longer spans and a plethora of truss designs, many patented, covered, and roofed. The better the truss, the wider a water it could span, although support piers were often needed anyway. The 103-foot Warner Hollow covered bridge, a Town truss design built in 1867, crosses in three spans high above the scenic gorge of Phelps Creek. Its high piers are made of quarried sandstone and creek stone. Among the most beautiful of the state's covered bridges, it's currently undergoing renovation.

Bridge builders preferred summer work, because they began in the water, sinking poles for support of a temporary floor. They worked ten hours a day, 5 1/2 or 6 days a week. It is almost impossible for us to visualize in detail how nineteenth-century wooden-truss bridges were built. There was no electricity or power equipment. Some bridge members were extremely heavy, measuring as much as 6 x 14 inches and up to 30 or 40 feet long. Bridges were built by hand, employing tools such as cant hooks, winches, augers, smoothing planes, beetles, crowbars, splice hooks, bucksaws with tightener cords, crosscut saws, pit saws, and the foot-adze, coupled with old-fashioned muscle. It could take six men six weeks to complete a 60-foot covered bridge.

A plaque beside the Mull Road covered bridge (1851) states that Ohio led the nation in covered bridge building during the nineteenth century. Current research reveals that around 5,000 wooden-truss covered bridges were built in the state; approximately 140 remain today (second to Pennsylvania). Many of the old treasures were lost to flood, fire, indifference, and Civil War damage. There is a strong drive to protect those that survive today.

Jack Klages, author of The Covered Bridges of Fairfield County, says: "Ohio had a network of meandering streams and plentiful timber at the time the covered bridges were being constructed. Limestone and sandstone were in abundance for the abutments; and the state was beginning to come into its own."

In 1850, Ohio probably led the nation in canals. Diggers scurried to connect Cleveland and Portsmouth with the Ohio and Erie Canal and Toledo and Cincinnati with the Miami and Erie Canal. By 1860, some three thousand miles of railroad track threaded the state. Ohio led the nation in agricultural products at midcentury and ranked among the top five of the wealthy, industrious states by the end of the 1900s. The bridge business boomed.

Longfellow once described the covered bridge as "a brief darkness leading from light to light." Charles Dickens wrote more morbidly: "We crossed the river by a wooden bridge, roofed and covered on all sides, and nearly a mile in length. It was profoundly dark; perplexed with great beams, crossing and recrossing it at every possible angle; and through the broad chinks and crevices in the floor, the rapid river gleamed, far down below, like a legion of eyes. We had no lamps; and as the horses stumbled and floundered through this place, toward the distant speck of dying light, it seemed interminable."

Of bridges and builders

Although the bridge Dickens described was in another state, Ohio was a traveler's crossroads at the time. With Lake Erie at the top and the Ohio River below, rivers networked between, along with canals, trains, and the National Road. Settlers were moving west, some staying and others passing through. In paying for Ohio's covered bridges, then as today, federal funds were sometimes available. During part of the nineteenth century, 3 percent of the value of federally owned lands in Ohio was made available to the state for roads and bridges.

There were over 400 native-son covered bridge builders in Ohio, as well as truss patentees such as gentle Reuben Partridge and the prolific Robert Smith. Often, the early builders were farmers; little wonder that their structures were called "house bridges." Many were carpenters who developed their own bridge companies.

One such carpenter/bridge-builder, Zimri Wall, was born of a Quaker family that farmed near Port Clinton. Wall's bridge business continues today as the Champion Bridge Company in Wilmington, Ohio, spanning three centuries. In fact, long after Wall passed on, his company made renovations to his last remaining project, the Martinsville covered bridge, constructed in 1871 across Todd's Fork of the Little Miami River in southwestern Ohio. This 72-foot, single-span bridge still carries traffic after 132 years.

The entrepreneurial Robert Smith (of Tippecanoe, now Tipp City, Ohio) patented his own truss designs and operated a highly successful bridge- building business. His Smith Bridge Company was flexible enough to build whatever type truss a customer wanted and canny enough to prefabricate them at his factory, shipping to the site by train or canal. Smith bridges were built as far west as California and Oregon.

A historic bridge in Zanesville of Muskingum County is known today as the Y bridge. It was designed by a young West Point graduate, Catherinus Buckingham. The unpatented multiple kingpost design of this unique, Y-shaped bridge became known as the Buckingham truss.

According to Zanesville historian Norris Schneider, in 1796 an Ebenezer Buckingham, then 18, walked to Ohio from Connecticut. With only 12 1/2 cents in his pocket, he applied for work at the home of Rufus Putnam, the founder of Marietta, Ohio's earliest town. Ebenezer was offered the job of chopping wood, which Putnam's daughter Catherine observed from a window. She asked her father who that industrious man was, whereupon Ebenezer was invited to breakfast, eventually winning a job with Putnam and the hand of his daughter in marriage. They moved to Putnam in the Zanesville area in 1804; four years later, Catherine died giving birth to their first child. Ebenezer named his son Catherinus.

The construction of the Y bridge was a father-son venture, with Ebenezer the principal stockholder of the bridge company and Catherinus the designer. During construction, Ebenezer was killed when an arm of the bridge fell into the water. Catherinus eventually became a general in the Civil War and a professor at Kenyon College.

Zanesville's covered bridge consisted of three multispanned sections that met at a huge circular center pier, forming its Y. It lasted from 1832 until 1900, despite heavy usage. Weighty, jangling trolleys rumbled through regularly. At one time nine elephants crossed this structure without a problem, even though six were on one span at one time.

Another notable covered bridge, completed in 1834 with double carriage lanes and colonnaded pedestrian paths, carried Broad Street 280 feet across the Scioto River in Columbus. Ithiel Town, a covered bridge patentee from Connecticut, designed the bridge using his lattice truss and stayed in Columbus two years to oversee its ornate construction. This busy bridge lasted almost half a century.

Restore and rebuild

A number of Ohio's historic covered bridges have been bypassed or moved to parks, county fairgrounds, or college campuses. Some have been rehabilitated at great cost, as they are truly treasures of the past that cannot be duplicated exactly as before.

An interesting restoration is the Hizey-Visintine covered bridge in Fairfield County, built in 1891 by James Buchanan and moved and rebuilt in 1991 by its new owner, James Visintine. The old bridge sagged a little (Buchanan always built camber into his bridges, tuning them like violins). Visintine moved it piece by piece, rebuilding it over Sycamore Creek on his own property. He worked with simple tools and replaced broken timbers with those of like kind.

The Everett Road covered bridge is a well-funded effort at authentic restoration. Built in the 1870s, it stood staunchly for a century before the flood of 1975 washed it off a collapsed abutment into Furnace Run, a tributary of the Cuyahoga River. The old bridge's pieces were pulled from the waters, and its Smith trusses were stored at historic Hale Farm. Eventually, Hale Farm became a part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, so, with federal assistance, great effort was made to put the bridge back together using the old ways. In 1986, the rebuilders bowed to modern technology by using a huge mechanized crane to hoist the two ten-ton trussed sides onto the bridge's floor. (It makes one wonder how the early builders managed.) Just a year later, people were sandbagging the banks as waters again rose dangerously. Today, the Everett Road bridge stretches one hundred feet across the river as before and can be enjoyed at the new national park.

Allen is concerned that, in time, all these old treasures will be gone. "In regard to bridge preservation in Ohio and elsewhere," he says, "I'm afraid it's a lost cause, as fire, flood, neglect, and vandalism are going to account for them all, perhaps in the not-too-distant future. Replicas are nice but still replicas. My only hope is that written and pictorial records are kept of covered bridges everywhere."

Perhaps someday museums will be built to protect and preserve these old bridges, just as the Smithsonian holds huge aircraft and a large church near Assisi was built over the smaller one of Saint Francis. Alas, without the setting of water running below and the sweet scent of trees arching in embrace around them, much would be lost.

Many of these historic covered bridges are still in use, having had their substructure reinforced to carry today's traffic and rotted or damaged trusses replaced. One example is the 134-foot McColly covered bridge, built in 1876 in Logan County, which still carries traffic over the Great Miami River. It's easy to spot, standing out well on the generally flat northwestern Ohio landscape, and is in exceedingly good shape, considering its age and usage. Its fourth rehabilitation (prior work was done in 1876, 1943, and 1958) in 2000 won the McCollyan award. At that time, it was raised 2 1/2 feet for protection from river rises. New piers were added, trusses restored, and fire retardant applied. This little red bridge, with its freshly painted white interior, is evidence of the longevity and usefulness of wooden-truss covered bridges.

Most county engineers are trying to protect their charges. Some bridges have infrared lights and cameras installed, as well as sprinkler systems, fire alarms wired into fire stations, or ordinary night-lights to discourage vandalism. Many of the structures have been treated with a fire retardant or preservative. Some wonder if legislation for high penalties against covered bridge vandals might help.

Bridging streams and centuries

Surprisingly, a number of Ohio's covered bridges are new. Historian David Simmons of the Ohio Historical Society, while bemoaning the lack of training in today's engineering schools for the preservation of old bridges, comments on the new wooden-truss bridges: "The new era in covered bridge construction began in 1983 in Ashtabula County, with the construction of the State Road Covered Bridge. Since then, John Smolen [a former county engineer] has built three more."

Simmons notes that the county's annual autumn Covered Bridge Festival "provides a huge boost to the economy." Ashtabula's festival is among the top one hundred fairs in the nation. "Communities that ignore the presence of an old bridge in their midst are missing wonderful opportunities for tourism and economic development," he comments. "Enthusiasts, of which there are many, search them out."

Smolen has designed others, including a 600-foot covered bridge scheduled for construction in 2004 over the Ashtabula River; it would be the longest covered bridge in the country. In his restorations, he has even replaced old wooden trunnels (the nails or wooden pegs) with like kind in sites where it snows heavily in winter.

"They're long-lasting and impervious to road salt, which preserves wood but is corrosive to metal," says Smolen. "Funds are more readily available, and they bring tourism."

Don Timmer designed an attractive covered bridge for Olmsted Falls, the Charles Harding Memorial, which was built by Amish crews in 1998. Engineer Dan Bennett designed covered bridges for the townspeople of St. Marys in Auglaize County (1992) and the village of Fletcher in Miami County (1998). The latter two were built entirely through voluntary labor and were funded without a cent from public treasuries. The bridge over St. Marys River rises in Memorial Park, which commemorates those who served in the armed forces. But the bridge also recalls a deep friendship formed between the farmers of Auglaize County and those of North Carolina. When drought devastated Carolina farmers, those of Auglaize sent truckloads of hay and cash; when Hurricane Hugo devastated the Carolinas, farmers used the fallen oak trees to make wooden shingles for the Charles Harding Memorial bridge, cutting them with an antique machine. The 105-foot, single-span bridge was constructed with over 5,000 hours of volunteer labor, $60,000 in donated materials, and $85,000 of donated cash.

A favorite covered bridge is "Old Humpback," built in 1874 in southern Ohio's Vinton County. Known for its 3-foot camber, it is currently undergoing rehabilitation. Ohio's longest is the 228-foot Harpersfield (1868) in Ashtabula County near Lake Erie; the oldest is Roberts, constructed in 1829 in western Ohio's Preble County. The oldest one still carrying traffic is the Newton Falls covered bridge, in use for 172 years! Some claim that at 46 1/2 feet the Lockport covered bridge (1999) in northeastern Ohio's Williams County is the world's widest. These and other warm wooden spans traverse time, telling of Ohio as it was in its earliest days.n

Jeanne Conte is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
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Title Annotation:a history of the bridges and the people who built them
Author:Conte, Jeanne
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2827
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