Covered bridges are part of our early history as a country, though their actual history goes back many hundreds of years. A 13th century sketchbook of the French architect Villard de Honnecourt depicted a truss bridge, and an Italian treatise on architecture showed a series of four designs in 1570. Looking at cover bridges today, especially the more remotely placed ones, reminds us of a time before multilane highways and electric cars. They also garnered the name of “kissing bridges” because courting couples would steal a kiss or two while passing through the privacy of the covered bridge, according to folklore.
Of course, they were and are built for function rather than romance, the novel and film about the bridges of Madison County notwithstanding.
The most basic differences between a covered bridge and other commonly constructed wooden models are all about protecting the trusses — the triangular frames that support the structure. Covering them protects the trusses from the elements, meaning they are stronger and much longer lasting. Uncovered wooden bridges typically last about 20 years, due to rain, sun and other elements. Meanwhile, a covered bridge could last over 100 years. A commonly known truss for these bridges is the Howe truss, invented by William Howe in 1840 and widely used in the mid- to late-1800s; these consist of cords, verticals and diagonals. The verticals are in tension, and the diagonals provide compression.
The Burr Arch style, which combined an arch and a multiple kingpost truss design, was invented in 1804 by Theodore Burr and patented in 1817. The Burr Arch design bears the entire load on the bridge, while the truss keeps the bridge rigid. This was done because it is impossible to evenly balance a dynamic load crossing the bridge between two parts. Computer models show the opposite view, with the truss providing the load bearing and the arch providing stability. Either way, this created a more stable bridge that could support greater weight than either arch or truss alone.
There are 98 historic wooden covered bridges in the state of Indiana, 14 of which were built before 1870 and incorporated the Burr Arch. Parke County, Ind., is called the Covered Bridge Capital of the World, as 51 of the 98 bridges are located in this area. Fifty-four in the state were built with Burr Arch truss designs, and 23 were built with Howe trusses. More than 2 million people come through the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival every year. It’s the largest in the state, with 10 different communities encompassing the county.
Valerie Barnett at Parke County Covered Bridges knows plenty about the Indiana bridges. When asked what goes into keeping these bridges around for decades, she said it begins at the beginning.
“Bridges were built with local wood, such as the tulip poplar, which is naturally resistant to termites, and oak, because it’s so strong. There was so much of it in the area, and the builders very wisely used it. And there is a prevalence of bridges not just because we have a lot of creeks, but the terrain, the layout, the topography, everything combines to protect the bridges from sun and so on.”
Barrett further explained, “The Portland Mills Covered Bridge is the second oldest covered bridge in Parke County, but there’s some debate about which actually came first, because The Crooks Covered Bridge was built the same year, which was 1856.”
Community pride is evident when it comes to these treasures in Parke County. The Bridgeton covered bridge was built in the late 1800s, and for 137 years stood as the centerpiece of the Covered Bridge Festival, until arson destroyed it. There were almost immediate calls to rebuild the bridge, but that would cost nearly a quarter million dollars. As Barnett said, poplar would be needed, and that meant trees would have to be cut down from a state forest and processed for proper use. With the work of hundreds and countless hours of labor, the newly rebuilt bridge was dedicated 17 months later.
Barrett said, “Covered bridges are inspected just like any other bridge would be, making sure they’re structurally sound and all that. And we have a bridge committee or society, whatever you want to call it, that helps maintain them as needed. We’ve been blessed to have an abundance of skilled builders in the area.”
The page for the Indiana Covered Bridge Society shows an amazing history of two such early builders, J.J. (Joseph J.) Daniels, who began by assisting his father in the 1840s, then started his own bridge business, completing his first Indiana bridge at 24. There are some conflicts as to the number of bridges he built; some say 60 but others say only 53 could be substantiated. Nevertheless, 17 of the bridges he built in the 1800s are still standing in the state. J.A. (Joseph Albert) Britton was involved in bridge building for 40 years, mostly erecting short, one span bridges, and, like Daniels, 17 of the bridges he is believed to have built are still standing.
One of those bridges is in Mecca, and because it had electricity installed, it was decorated for Christmas in years past.
“Mecca is one of the few covered bridges that is situated right in town, next to the one-room schoolhouse,” explained Barnett. “A few down at Billy Creek Village have done reenactments in their historical business. They used to be open year-round, with actors and tours, (doing) living history. They are working on opening up again, because there are still bridges there. Mansfield is also an in-town bridge, but mostly they are all hard to decorate; it’s pretty much the entrance and exit only, if at all.”
Because many of the bridges are in more remote parts of the state, Barrett said they have had trouble with graffiti at times.
“It mostly happens where no one will be seen doing it, and it could be there for a while before it’s found. We try not to draw attention to it when that happens, so it won’t recur quickly. And we don’t want to reward bad behavior with attention. The committee will paint over it as quickly as possible.”
But Barrett said that the beauty and history have increased tourism because of the bridges. “It has really helped the county. It’s as valuable as agriculture, which is also what we’re known for. The festival becomes part of you, and many people return year after year. I grew up in Illinois, and we used to come here. Everyone has a favorite bridge, and it’s so picturesque just driving along the roads. In the fall, when the leaves change and the bridges are in the middle of that … well, they’re just so beautiful and romantic. Some are white, some red, a few are not painted.”
Barrett doesn’t believe the bridges will all fade away; however, there are less than there once were. Pennsylvania has 219 remaining, the most of any state. On the other end of that spectrum, Delaware has three and Florida has one, as does South Dakota. These structures have survived hundreds of years, and it remains to be seen if history-loving communities decide to build new covered bridges — not to replace old ones, but to continue the tradition.