Roofs Over Rivers


With the advent of William Howe, bridgebuilding became big business. Gone were the primitive posters and word-of-mouth advertising. Howe had four brothers-in-law named Stone who set up a family dynasty of bridgebuilding firms with the rights to build Howe truss bridges in specified localities. Amasa Stone had Ohio; brother Joseph, New England; brother Daniel, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Andros Stone took his brother-in-law into partnership to work westward out of Chicago. In a few short years, Howe truss bridges were practically standard on railroads, and still more companies were formed to build them. (Some seventeen of these spans still stand in the Northwest.) There was enough work out of St. Louis to induce the firm of Stone and Boomer to buy an entire wooded township in Missouri, where they built a model mill town to work the trees into bridge timbers.

With the big towns, the turnpikes, and the railroads provided for, local carpenters turned their attention to the smaller villages and secondary roads. Not wishing to pay royalties, these home-town artisans designed their own bridges. They used, for the most part, simple trusses on the same principles of roof framing and support that had gone into many thousands of houses and barns.

There were odd, one-of-a-kind bridges, of course. In 1841, two Maryland men collaborated in patenting a “puzzle-keyed” bridge. Though never actually built, their whole structure was designed to hang on a single piece, which if removed would send the entire fabrication tumbling into the river!

A Pennsylvania schoolmaster named Herman Haupt, in charge of a girls’ seminary in Gettysburg, experimented incessantly with little bridge models, loading them to the breaking point with dangling lead weights. In 1839 he finally devised and patented one that satisfied him, but due to the inception of the Howe truss shortly afterward, Haupt’s bridge was never popular, and his fame rests more on his work as a Civil War general in charge of military railroads.

The heyday of covered bridges was about 1860. They were common both in country and city, on turnpike and byway. Major eastern centers, such as Hartford, Springfield, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Columbia, and Augusta, as well as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Indianapolis to the west, all had covered bridges. Later years even saw one erected in Los Angeles. Records show that they once stood in all but eleven states.

After the Civil War came the age of iron. The covered bridges—sometimes perfectly sound ones that were simply thought to be old-fashioned—were gradually replaced. Oddly enough, iron-smelting Pennsylvania bucked the trend. Their own wrought-iron and steel channels and beams were all right for building bridges elsewhere, but at home the Keystone Staters kept right on building them of wood. There are more than 1,300 covered bridges still standing in the nation today, and Pennsylvania leads the other states, with 351 as of September, 1958. Ohio had approximately 240 by unofficial count in the same year. In Indiana, where covered bridges were built from 1880 right down to World War I—some of them with fancy embellishments, scrolls, and gingerbread decorations—over 150 covered bridges still stand. Oregon is next with 130-odd, and then comes Vermont with 106. New Hampshire, Alabama, West Virginia, and Georgia still have a good representation, and there are 29 covered railroad bridges in New England and the Far West. In most of the other states, however, the day of the covered bridge has passed, and only a few isolated examples remain.

Yet even today, in areas where steel shipments are costly and wood is plentiful, covered bridges are still being built. In Lane County, Oregon, for example, a few modern ones are planned and built by engineers every year, particularly in newly developed areas where the need for heavier bridges has not yet been established.

Recently, residents of the Massachusetts towns of Charlemont and Sheffield petitioned the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Works to replace their old bridges in kind. The contractors looked over the elaborate plans for modern three-lane covered bridges, and then realized that there were no timbers in all New England big enough to meet the specifications. So both Charlemont and Sheffield have shiny new covered bridges, built in 1951 and 1953, respectively, but the wood that went into their construction came all the way from Oregon!

The Poetry of Bridgebuilding

In 1949 townspeople of Charlemont, Massachusetts, appealed—in somewhat creaky verse—to the state’s Department of Public Works to replace in kind a covered bridge:

The Bissell Bridge is falling down,
Right in the middle of our town
Please view the matter with alarm
And do vote “Yes” unto our plan.

As related in Richard Sanders Allen’s Covered Bridges of the Northeast, the department replied—also in kind: