October 2009 Issue
Bridges to Autumn
Take a tour of Ohio’s covered bridges and experience the beauty of the season.
Build a bridge with good Ohio hardwood, put a roof over it to protect it from the elements, and it will last a century, maybe two.
Often, the simplest solutions are the most elegant, and Ohio’s covered bridges are as lovely as they are practical, especially this time of year, with brilliant fall foliage as a backdrop.
Covered bridges have always been about more than just getting to the other side — something we take for granted today.
We whoosh over streams and ravines on steel and concrete bridges, scarcely even noticing their service. It’s hard for us to appreciate the hazards of fording a river on foot or in a horse and buggy. Waterways were a great blessing to pioneers, but crossing them for travel or to get crops to market could be a challenge — and expensive, if you had to pay a ferry operator to haul your horse and wagon back and forth on a boat.
Ohio has approximately 138 covered bridges — a fair number of them still in service. They were constructed in wood and stone by elite craftsmen with specialized engineering skills and signature styles. Covered bridges were built routinely from the early 1800s well into the 20th century — and they served more than highways. If it needed spanned, there was a covered bridge for the job.
There were railroad covered bridges (with vents to allow
locomotive smoke to escape), covered bridges over canals (with trap doors for loading the boats below), covered aqueducts (to carry canal traffic over rivers) and covered bridges that incorporated drawbridges (allowing river traffic to pass).
Wherever a modern bridge serves travelers, there is a chance that a wooden covered bridge once stood there. Before today’s famous “Y” Bridge in Zanesville, there was a “Y”-shaped covered bridge that spanned the Licking and Muskingum rivers.
The growing availability of steel and concrete for construction eventually ended the covered-bridge building era — though many continued to serve major highways until well after World War II.
More than all that, covered bridges — or “house bridges” as they were appropriately called — were great social centers of American life. Their floorboards resounded with the footsteps of dancers at community gatherings. They hosted picnics, church services and political speeches. A secluded covered bridge
offered a quiet meeting place for a romantic rendezvous.
There’s still something deeply romantic about Ohio’s historic covered bridges, especially in autumn. Happily, you don’t have to travel far to find one — or even several in close proximity. Many you can still motor across, others invite you to get out of your car and get to the other side on your own two feet, listening to the gurgle of the running water below and hearing your steps echo from the walls the same way the footsteps of horses and travelers did a century ago.
Most of Ohio’s covered bridges take you onto tree-lined country roads, where the traffic is light, the fall colors are glorious, and where no one would notice if you stole a kiss in the cool shade of a house bridge on a gorgeous autumn afternoon.
They are found in virtually every corner of the Buckeye State, which is second only to Pennsylvania in its number of covered bridges.
Ashtabula and Fairfield counties are the mother churches when it comes to covered bridges in Ohio. They boast some 35 between them, offering day travelers the chance to see the greatest number of covered bridges in the shortest number of miles.
In one southwest nook of Fairfield County, nestled in the hills of central Ohio, you can view three covered bridges that are practically neighbors — the Hanaway, Johnston and Mink Hollow. Fairfield County Historical Parks offers a map and signage to help find them on the scenic, twisting roads.
Each sits on its original site. Built in the late 19th century, they look like cousins with their white siding, wood-shingled roofs and unique canopied windows.
The 50-foot Hartman Covered Bridge, built in 1888, was moved from its original location in 1967 to Lockville Historical Park, where it spans a remnant of the Ohio & Erie Canal.
Perhaps the most famous of Fairfield County’s covered bridges is Rock Mill Bridge, constructed by prolific builder Jacob “Blue Jeans” Brandt over the upper falls of the Hocking River. According to The Covered Bridges of Ohio: An Atlas and History by Miriam Wood, Brandt earned his nickname from his penchant for clothing made from the sturdy fabric.
It overlooks one of Ohio’s oldest gristmills — Rock Mill, first built in 1787. The mill currently on the site dates to 1824 and is under restoration. From the bridge’s windows, you can hear the sounds of the falls and take in the dizzying view of the millrace and river gorge below.
Another of the state’s best-known bridges is its oldest — the Roberts Covered Bridge — one of seven covered bridges in southwest Ohio’s Preble County. Built in 1829, it’s the second-oldest covered bridge in the United States and one of only six “double-barreled” or two-lane covered bridges remaining in the nation.
Spring floods, arsonists and overloaded trucks were a covered bridge’s worst enemies. Yet, even after the decision was made to replace a damaged or outmoded wooden bridge, there was no guarantee that its stout timbers could be pulled apart.
According to The Covered Bridges of Ohio, Chillicothe’s 300-foot bridge over the Scioto River, built in 1817, resisted every effort of would-be demolition crews in 1886. In the end, workers burned it down.
Wyandot County’s covered bridges over the Sandusky River in northwest Ohio have their own tales to tell about fire and ice. In her book, Wood tells the story of the last person to cross the 140-foot Old Indian Mill Covered Bridge in the flood of 1913.
A girl in a buggy on her way home from school found water in the bridge up to her horse’s belly. A gallant miller came out of the nearby mill to lead the girl and the horse to safety, then walked back home across the bridge. The next day, high waters, large chunks of ice and flood debris knocked the bridge from its foundation. It rode the river some distance downstream before wrecking into the bank.
Lumber salvaged from the Old
Indian Mill Bridge was used to repair other county bridges damaged by the great flood — including the 1873 Parker Covered Bridge, which still serves traffic today, as does the 1880 Swartz Covered Bridge. Vandals burned a large portion of the Parker Bridge in 1991, but the community rallied to rebuild it. Just one of many times Ohio’s covered bridges rose from the ashes.
October 10–11 is the weekend of the Covered Bridge Festival in Ashtabula County, which is not only celebrating its vintage bridges — it’s building new ones. This is an excellent time to tour the bridges and see northeast Ohio’s trees bursting with color.
Take a walk across the Benetka Road Bridge and the Olin Bridge a few miles apart on the Ashtabula River. Both bridges were renovated in 1985, but they still have historic charm and offer beautiful views of fall foliage.
From there, it’s about three miles to the 613-foot Smolen-Gulf Bridge. Opened in 2008, it is the longest covered bridge in the United States. It’s a mind-boggling sight, standing 93 feet above the Ashtabula River. At 30 feet wide and 14-1/2 feet high, it was designed by former county engineer John Smolen to carry full legal-load traffic and last for 100 years.
Even if you don’t make it to the Covered Bridge Festival, organizers provide a map and helpful signage for a self-guided driving tour of Ashtabula County’s 17 bridges any time. With many of them still carrying daily traffic, it offers the opportunity to experience covered bridges much in the way long-ago travelers did.
There’s a sense of excitement as the road winds its way in a gradual descent toward Conneaut Creek, unseen in the distance, and suddenly the 152-foot State Road Covered Bridge emerges at the bottom of the valley from a bend in the tree-lined road. Transitioning from the bright sunlight to the bridge’s cool shade is like entering a time machine. The wooden floor and timbers of a covered bridge give it the comfortable and familiar feeling of a sheltering old barn.
The State Road Covered Bridge was built in 1983 using 97,000 board feet of oak and pine, but captures the feel of the county’s much older bridges. The 110-foot Netcher Road Covered Bridge looks like a barn with its red siding, white trim and Victorian accents. Opened in 1999, its frame is supported by a pair of massive wooden arches.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ashtabula County offers a pair of covered bridges listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the 228-foot Harpersfield Bridge, built in 1868 over the Ashtabula River, and the postcard-perfect Windsor Mills Bridge, built in 1867 to span Phelps Creek. Until the Smolen-Gulf Bridge opened, Harpersfield owned the title of the longest covered bridge in the state.
Covered bridges span not merely distance, but time. They are like secrets in plain sight, living on quiet back roads surrounded by forests, creating the perfect way to enjoy a fall day in Ohio.