“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 I held my head down to save my head from the rafters above . . . and said to myself this cannot be reality.”
Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842
Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved covered bridges. Whenever I see one, I want to stop and just look at it. And maybe cross it, in a car or on foot, if possible. I have no idea why I am so enamored of them because they are basically all the same; frequently red, usually on a smallish, country road, flowing over a largish river. There is just something about them that fascinates me.
NOT JUST IN AMERICA
While covered bridges have gained nearly iconic status in the United States, you can actually find them all over the world. Bulgaria, Romania, Canada, France, The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, China and Vietnam all boast a form of covered bridge.
Most American covered bridges date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once, as many as 12,000 were in use but by the 1950’s, that number had dwindled to less than 1500. Today, 26 states have about 815 covered bridges still in use. Pennsylvania has the most at 213.
Although they can be constructed of a variety of materials, the typical American covered bridge is a one-lane, wooden truss bridge, completely enclosed on the sides and covered with a peaked roof.
WHY WERE THE BRIDGES COVERED
There is lots of speculation as to why they were originally covered.
Some say it was because cattle were afraid to cross a bridge when they realized there was flowing water underneath.
A second theory is that while truss bridges are strong and sturdy, they are not very pretty. So by covering in the trusses, the bridge became more attractive.
Another idea is that the covered bridge provided shelter for travelers during inclement weather. Would they go out of their way to find a covered bridge if it were going to rain? Why not just go home?
The most likely reason that the bridges were covered is not nearly so romantic. The exposed wood of the bridge was very susceptible to damage by weather. Sun, rain, snow and ice all caused the bridges to fail much faster. The cover protected the bridge from the elements thus adding years to their life. Some estimates say that covering the bridge extended its life tenfold.
PRESERVING THE HISTORY OF COVERED BRIDGES
Today most of the covered bridges in the US are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many are no longer in daily use but still stand alongside a more modern river crossing, a monument to bygone days and early engineering.
In the 1990’s, as a result of Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County, there was a renewed interest in visiting covered bridges. Later, the oscar-nominated movie of the same name used some of the actual bridges named in the novel during filming in Madison County, Iowa.
The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, founded in1950, is instrumental in recording and preserving the history of these beautiful bridges. On their website, they have carefully documented the $2 million renovation currently underway on The Jericho Bridge, built in 1865, which I visited yesterday.
Although it is still closed and quiet – the renovation project will be completed in Spring, 2016 – I was very happy to sit for a few minutes on a fallen tree and imagine the sound of cars rolling along the wooden planks. And with no sound but the chirping birds and running water, it was easy to imagine back a little farther to the sound of hoof beats echoing through the bridge as horse-drawn buggies clip-clopped along.
Stay tuned – there are lots more covered bridges around.
Do you have a favorite photo of a covered bridge? Please share it in the comments below.