Friday, September 16, 2016

Covered Bridges

Unknown Ky Covered Bridge - 1930s
   I suspect the book and film Bridges of Madison County had a great deal to do with the renewed interest in preserving and restoring this famous icon of American travel. We recently saw one waiting to be restored and added to an excellent collection of early log structures in a field outside of Bardstown, KY.
  Covered bridges were not the first bridges to be built, settlers had been on our shores nearly 200 years when the first ones appeared, though Charles Wilson Peale (known for his paintings of George Washington) commented in an essay about wooden bridges in 1797, "it has been advised that a covering be added for protection of the structure."
   Credit is given to Timothy Palmer for the first documented covered bridge in Pennsylvania because he signed his name and dated the structure as 1805. Others copied his idea and most wooden bridges after that time were covered.
   The barn like structure over a bridge served a practical purpose. It protected the wood and allowed it to season, very important as green fresh cut planks and poles were often used in the construction. Visit a lumber yard today and you'll see twisted and bucked planks, even in treated lumber, that did not season properly. The protection also strengthen the structure and made it more durable so it would last longer.
   An old story goes that two drunks drove onto a covered bridge and thought they were in their own barn. They climbed down, unhitched the horses, gave them a smack on the rear expecting them to go into their stalls. The horses took off to find their way home and the men were left to pull their wagon for the rest of the journey.

   The first outdoor advertising appeared on the sides of covered bridges, a famous one is the Coca-Cola bridge at Portland, PA.
   We refer to some of our interstate highways as turnpikes or toll roads. Toll booths are found along many major highway systems. The travelers pay a fee for using the road. All over the country some back roads are called pikes. Meaning that sometime during the history of the road a pole (pike) was placed across it and the owner collected a toll (fee) from travelers using their road.
   In the very early days livestock went to market on the hoof, even turkeys were herded on foot. The farmer paid a token per animal and often they were sent a bill when the gatekeeper was too busy to calculate the fare on the spot.
  Many covered bridges were built at the entrance to toll roads as a comfortable place to stop while payment was rendered. Builders designed their wares (bridges) so they could be sold and moved, much like the Amish built small buildings we see today. This was another excellent reason to have them spruced up and looking good. Prior to sale building is not a new technique by any means - savvy 'Yankee' craftsmen have been using it for centuries.
  Sadly many covered bridges when they were by-passed by concrete structures were left to rot. Some remained in use until recently. The bridge at Switzer, KY over Elkhorn Creek in Franklin County was in daily use until a flash flood swept it from its pilings and nearly destroyed it. It was moved from its original location, restored, and closed to traffic.
   We found a beautiful bridge in Ohio near Yellow Springs. Someone had hand-carved wild roses up many of the inside trusses. We took pictures, but the film jumped the sprocket in my camera so I didn't get any slides. We planned to go back to the location to take new photographs, but vandals burned the bridge and the roses were lost forever. Later we used those roses in a ghost story.
   We are indebted to the late Vernon White who wrote the first book on covered bridges of Kentucky and Eric Sloane for his fascinating sketch books of early Americana.
   The photography is from the collection of Whipple Townsend Black. Mr. White could not identify the bridge, but the photo was taken in KY sometime during the late 1920s & 30s as he did most of his work before film became unavailable due to WWII.  


1 comment:

  1. I love covered bridges. Are there any left in KY now?