Cherishing Covered Bridges

5 places to see covered bridges and pay homage to a bygone craft.
By: John Briley

Man can risk life and limb to blast a hole through a mountain to build a tunnel, and most travelers won’t blink twice at the engineering marvel. But if man hammers together a wooden bridge, puts a roof on it and manages to preserve it for 100 years or so, people will flock to pay homage to the covered bridge, especially if it sports a nice paint job and sits in a picturesque spot. 

Covered bridges first surfaced in North America in the 19th century and served 2 main purposes: to protect the wooden floors from natural elements and to help placate horses that were prone to spooking by the sound and sight of the rushing water below. Construction of covered bridges waned in the 1860s, when iron emerged as the preferred bridge-building material. 

Many covered bridges remain as iconic artifacts of a more simple time. Here are 5 places to see covered bridges, and pay your own homage to a bygone craft.

Billing itself as the covered bridge capital of the world with 31 covered bridges spread across the 450-square-mile county. The bridges were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and all but one are supported by the Burr Arch Truss design, a combination of trusses and arches that made for a strong and stable span. Parke County hosts the annual Covered Bridge Festival (October 14-23, 2011), which includes food, crafts, music and convenient proximity to the Covered Bridge Art gallery. Among the highlights is the Bridgeton covered bridge, a 245-foot span with a photo-ready waterfall and mill.
The Philippi Covered Bridge, on US Route 250 in Philippi, WV, is the only covered bridge on the Federal Highway System. It’s also the oldest (built in 1852) and longest (285.5 feet) covered bridge in West Virginia. After spanning the Tygart River through the Philippi bridge, Route 250 dives south and into the Monongahela National Forest, connecting travelers to a large natural playground that features 919,000 acres of brawny mountains, rollicking streams, quaint towns (such as Elkins and Slaty Fork) and epic Appalachian scenery.
I can’t mention covered bridges without including those fabled bridges of Madison County, Iowa, made mainstream famous by the book and the movie.Six of an original 19 covered bridges remain today, including the Roseman bridge, the most famous in Robert James Waller’s novel. Since 1970, Madison County has hosted its annual Covered Bridge Festival, slated for Oct. 7-9, 2011, on the second full weekend in October. The festival includes antique and craft vendors, live music and guided bus tours of the covered bridges.
The covered bridges of Central Vermont add one more oh-so-quaint element to a state already brimming with unfair quantities of quaintness. In Northfield, VT, 3 covered bridges -- Upper Cox, Lower Cox and Northfield Falls -- are within a quarter mile of each other on Cox Brook Road, which repeatedly crosses an eponymous brook. In the early 1900s, Vermont boasted more than 600 covered bridges; a statewide flood in 1927 carried away most of them and today only 114 remain. Still, Vermont offers the highest density of covered bridges of any US state.
What state led the US in covered bridge construction in the 1800s? Ohio, which once was home to more than 2,000 covered bridges. The Everett Road Covered Bridge, which crosses Furnace Run in Cuyahoga Valley National Park ), is one of the 125 that remain in Ohio. The Everett Road bridge provided protection on a key supply route to the Ohio and Erie Canal. The bridge has survived significant damage, first by a 1913 flood, then by a truck crash in 1970 and finally from a 1975 flash flood that ripped the bridge from its foundation. Citizens rallied to fund a reconstruction, which the National Park Service finished in 1986. When you road trip to see covered bridges, respect the craftsmanship behind the structure, and try to picture what life must have been like for weary travelers during the time the spans were built. That always adds a layer of appreciation to whatever you’re seeing.
Travel Writer John Briley wishes his hometown of Washington, DC, had covered bridges.
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