WOODEN COVERED BRIDGES HAVE EXISTED IN AMERICA FOR MORE THAN 200 YEARS. MOST OF THEM ARE FOUND IN RUSTIC, RURAL SETTINGS ON QUIET BACK ROADS. SUCH IDYLLIC PLACES – WITH STREAMS, WOODS, AND HISTORIC BRIDGES – LURE MANY TO VISIT THE 200-PLUS COVERED BRIDGES IN PENNSYLVANIA.
Why are there covered bridges? Many reasons are proposed, but only one is true: They were covered to protect wood components from deterioration caused by weather elements. Without roofing, the bridges probably would not last 20 years before falling apart. With regular maintenance, particularly for the roofing, a wooden covered bridge would outlast many of the stone bridges of the same era.
HISTORY OF COVERED BRIDGES
Pennsylvania has a rich history of authentic wooden covered bridges. The first covered bridge in America was the Permanent Bridge, built in 1805. It carried Market Street over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Timothy Palmer, one of the true pioneers in bridge building, built the Permanent Bridge, which stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1875.
The longest covered bridge in the world was the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, which connected York and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania. The 5,690-foot, 28-span bridge crossing the Susquehanna River was built in 1813 and lasted until 1832, when it was destroyed by an ice jam. It was replaced by another covered bridge of almost equal length in 1834. On June 28, 1863, it was burned down deliberately by Union troops during the Civil War to keep the Confederate army from advancing to Lancaster and Philadelphia.
Another bridge builder, Theodore Burr, was famous for his multiple-span structures over the Susquehanna River, all built in the early 19th century. Burr is known for his Burr arch patent used in many bridges across America. Burr constructed bridges across the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania at Berwick, Northumberland, and Harrisburg, as well as the McCall’s Ferry Bridge located near Holtwood and Camelback Bridge.
By the 1870s, more than 1,500 covered bridges conveyed trains, wagons, and pedestrians over the many Pennsylvania waterways. Often, the bridges were located near farms and mills, providing access for traders and horse-and-buggy travelers.
COVERED BRIDGE PRESERVATION
At the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s covered bridges were being replaced rapidly by steel and iron structures and, eventually, by today’s modern concrete bridges. Many of the early covered bridges could handle the weight of the automobile easily, but even some of the most well-constructed bridges could not handle the heavier load requirements of trucks and buses.
The number of covered bridges in Pennsylvania declined until the 1940s mostly through neglect, but often by fire and natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. When a small group of bridge enthusiasts noticed the unfortunate decline, they organized to protect and preserve the covered bridges. Now, almost 70 years later, the two most notable groups are the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, established in 1959, and The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, founded in 1950. Their members donate money, conduct fundraisers, and voice their concerns to local politicians about the need to preserve these historic treasures.
Covered bridge enthusiasts also donate their time to promote the upkeep of their beloved bridges. Theodore Burr Society members frequently gather to clean up an area surrounding a bridge, as they did for Red Bridge in Perry County. In June 2008, members of the Burr Society painted the portals of the Sachs Bridge in Gettysburg, Adams County.
In the last couple of years, some bridges have undergone major rehabilitation. Funding came from state and federal highway funds as well as from money raised by the county and historical societies where the bridges are located.
The Academia Covered Bridge in Juniata County was restored recently after engineers determined that repairs needed to be made to prevent it from collapsing. The restoration included a fire retardant chemical, interior lighting, and surveillance cameras. Today, it stands as the longest covered bridge in Pennsylvania, a two-span, 279-foot structure crossing Tuscarora Creek.
Many of the covered bridges still in use on roadways today have steel I-beam supports underneath to enable them to safely withstand heavy traffic loads. The structure itself remains authentic, but the stress on the flooring is reduced because of the steel supports.
VISITING AND PROMOTING COVERED BRIDGES
Bridge societies publish newsletters, magazines, or bulletins informing members of news related to covered bridges. Pennsylvania state information centers provide booklets about their counties, their covered bridges, and how to find them. The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges publishes a book – the World Guide to Covered Bridges – listing information about all known covered bridges in the world. Pennsylvania’s Covered Bridges: A Complete Guide, by Benjamin and June Evans, provides directions to every covered bridge in Pennsylvania.
The World Guide reports that 814 authentic covered bridges are standing in the United States today. Pennsylvania has about one-fourth of them, with 210. Lancaster County has 28 covered bridges; Columbia County has 24; and Washington County has 23.
Various events promote and educate the public about the bridges. The second week in May of each year is “See Pennsylvania Covered Bridges Week.” Bridge societies conduct weekend safaris each year during the summer months, usually visiting more than 20 bridges. In the winter, bridges are decorated for the holidays, most notably Pool Forge Covered Bridge in Lancaster County.
One of the oldest Pennsylvania covered bridges still standing and often visited is the Uhlerstown or Lock 18 Canal Covered Bridge in Bucks County. Located in a picturesque setting, this 101-foot structure built in 1832 crosses the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal on the western edge of Uhlerstown.
About half of the covered bridges in Pennsylvania are either bypassed or have been moved to community parks. Some can be found on biking or hiking trails. Half of one bridge in Union County rests on penitentiary grounds. Fortunately, many of the bypassed bridges are well-preserved, and the areas around them have become tourist attractions that include picnicking facilities and playgrounds.
Most often held in the fall of the year, annual covered bridge festivals focus attention on these historic treasures. Festivals contribute to the beautiful images that the public has of covered bridges nestled in quiet, serene settings.
COVERED BRIDGE FESTIVALS
Festivals are held annually at many sites in Pennsylvania, often in conjunction with craft shows. The most popular bridge festival is the Washington-Greene Counties’ Covered Bridge Festival held on the third weekend in September at 10 bridge sites. This year will mark its 40th annual festival. The Bucks County Covered Bridge Festival in October is held in conjunction with the Central Bucks Bicycle Club Annual Covered Bridges Ride. Kreidersville Covered Bridge in Northampton County has a festival in June, and this year in October the 29th Annual Covered Bridge & Arts Festival in Columbia-Montour Counties will take place at Knoebels Amusement Resort.
COVERED BRIDGE SOCIETIES
Nearly every state that has a covered bridge also has a supporting society. Societies provide publications informing members about news related to their state’s bridges. The most well-known covered bridge society in Pennsylvania is the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society. Meetings are held monthly, mostly around Lancaster. In May of this year, the Burr Society will provide a covered bridge “safari” in Lancaster County for all interested bridge enthusiasts.
COVERED BRIDGE WEB SITES
Many Web sites for Pennsylvania and its nearby states provide history and photographs of covered bridges.
COVERED BRIDGE DRIVING TOURS
Besides booklets from Pennsylvania state information centers, Web sites list driving tours and/or downloadable pamphlets.