"I'm always on the lookout for a good read. Indiana Covered Bridges provides exactly that." —The Paper of Montgomery County
Indiana Covered Bridgesby Marsha Williamson Mohr, Rachel Berenson Perry (Foreword by)
A symbol of Indiana's past, the covered bridge still evokes feelings of nostalgia, romance, and even mystery. During the 19th century, over 500 of these handsome structures spanned the streams, rivers, and ravines of Indiana. Plagued by floods, fire, storms, neglect, and arson, today fewer than 100 remain. Marsha Williamson Mohr's photographs capture the timeless
A symbol of Indiana's past, the covered bridge still evokes feelings of nostalgia, romance, and even mystery. During the 19th century, over 500 of these handsome structures spanned the streams, rivers, and ravines of Indiana. Plagued by floods, fire, storms, neglect, and arson, today fewer than 100 remain. Marsha Williamson Mohr's photographs capture the timeless and simple beauty of these well-traveled structures from around the state, including Parke Countythe unofficial covered bridge capital of the world. With 105 color photographs, Indiana's Covered Bridges will appeal to everyone who treasures Indiana's rich architectural heritage.
"[Indiana Covered Bridges] is a conceptual follow-up to Mohr's popular IU Press book Indiana Barns, offering more than 100 vivid, well-composed, and beautiful photographs of bridges." —Bloom
"Featuring Indiana covered bridges from across the state as well as gorgeous full color photographs, this book is a feast for your eyes—and soul." —Little Indiana
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Indiana Covered Bridges
By Marsha Williamson Mohr
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Marsha Williamson Mohr
All rights reserved.
The Allure of the Covered Bridge
RACHEL BERENSON PERRY
THE MEANDERING OHIO AND WABASH RIVERS shape the southern borders of our great state of Indiana, and multiple streams and tributaries crisscross our 92 counties like fine lines of age on a familiar face. From the Kankakee, Yellow, and Eel Rivers in the north; through central Indiana's Wildcat Creek, Mississinewa, and the forks of the mighty White River; to Pigeon Creek, the Muskatatuck and Blue Rivers in the south; the waterways have trickled and gushed since before the Northwest Territory's first settlers.
Tell-tale sentries of white-trunked sycamores marking creek banks through meadows and along ravines; dramatic limestone bluffs overlooking the Ohio River; and pastoral brooks that are transformed into raging floodwaters each spring; are all part of our collective consciousness as Hoosiers.
The bridges that cross our plethora of waterways, however, are rarely considered. We drive at high speeds over elevated road surfaces that barely differ from the rest of the highway, often with side barriers blocking our view of the river below. Traveling without hindrance along public thoroughfares seems like a basic entitlement.
Rivers and creeks, however, were formidable impediments that caused lengthy detours and precarious travel conditions in the early 1800s. The neophyte state of Indiana in the 1820s initiated a system of "State Roads" to connect the larger settlements. With most early settlers arriving from the south, the first road built connected New Albany to Paoli, and later extended west to Vincennes. Within a decade, this expanding road included Bloomington, Greencastle, Crawfordsville, and Lafayette.
As state counties were established, the main concern for elected commissioners became the locations of proposed roads. The first "improved" roads beginning in 1848, plank roads, consisted of large tree trunks laid approximately fourteen feet apart on each side with smaller trees trimmed and placed adjacently across the trunks. This method of road building, especially useful for traversing swampy areas, was short-lived due to the inevitable rotting and destruction of the wood.
Privately managed companies, called gravel road companies, organized and took over the building and maintenance of the county roads. "Each company consisted of land owners along the proposed road, members to be taxed according to the value of their land. The company agreed to maintain the road, including culverts and bridges, and could collect tolls from non-residents. Every male citizen over twenty-one was required to work two days each year on roads, usually in his home neighborhood."
In the late 1880s, counties started buying out these private road companies, and in a few years all main roads became public property. This did not completely eliminate tolls, however, as fees determined by county commissioners were typically charged for bridge crossings.
Tolls in 1867 to traverse bridges over the Wabash River in Lafayette, for example, were set at twenty-five cents for four-wheeled carriages, wagons, or sleighs pulled by two horses, oxen, or other animals; fifteen cents for conveyances drawn by one animal; ten cents for each horse, ass, or mule with one rider; two cents for a footman, each riderless horse or mule; three cents for each head of cattle; and one cent apiece for every sheep or hog. Also, when the circus was coming to town, it cost a whopping one dollar to get an elephant across and fifty cents for each camel.
An anecdote about covered bridge fees involves Indiana's famous poet, James Whitcomb Riley:
It seems that Riley appeared one winter's night at an entertainment in Bloomington. Hoping to catch a train at Gosport he hired a buggy and driver to fetch him the 18-odd miles. With every step the vehicle's two little western horses broke through the crust of ice, which covered the road, and could only plod along at a walk.
Dawn was breaking when the rig and its weary occupants came in sight of the breakfast smokes of Gosport. Riley puts it: "Just as we approached the covered bridge, the driver leaned forward and said, 'Mr. Riley, can you see what it says on the end of that bridge?'
"'Yes,' said I. 'It says $5 Fine for Driving Through this Bridge Faster than a Walk.'
"He gave the whip just as the hooves of the horses struck the board floor, and brought it down with a switch on the backs of the animals. The horses that had walked all night suddenly leaped into action. It seemed to me we went through that bridge about ninety miles an hour.
"'Aha!' shouted the driver. 'Here's where I get my five dollars worth!'"
What Riley didn't say is that half of the fine typically went to the informer, so if nobody tattled, they likely kept their money.
Although it seems likely that the horses in Riley's story were whipped into a gallop, the reason for requiring horses to walk across bridges was based upon the belief that a team of horses at a trot would coordinate their pace with one another. "It was believed this cadence vibration could do damage to the bridge. So, the driver would have to slow his team to a walk to avoid this. Also, a lot of Civil War troops trained on and around the bridges. Their marching could do similar damage so they had to obey the same law."
In the period between 1820 and 1922, builders in Indiana constructed as many as six hundred covered bridges. According to folklore, they were enclosed for several reasons. Some said that the structures resembled barns so horses would enter them; that the sides blocked the sight and sound of rushing water to placate nervous equines; or that the enclosed bridges provided protection for a load of hay in sudden rain storms. "The reality is that a roof and sides protected the wooden timbers and joints. An uncovered bridge had a life expectancy of ten to twelve years, while the same structure, covered, would last almost indefinitely."
Most covered bridges consisted of two trusses that supported the roof, board siding, and a plank floor. The trusses, which typically rested on stone piers, spanned the waterway. Some counties built many more covered bridges than others, partially due to numerous steep-banked or flood-prone streams that were difficult to ford. But, according to covered bridge expert George E. Gould, the abundance of covered bridges in particular regions was primarily due to the salesmanship of the builders.
"When it came to erecting covered bridges, Indiana not only had ample forests of lumber, but was also blessed with some unusually talented bridge builders." Numerous carpenters are credited with constructing the bridges in our state. Major builders included J. J. Daniels, the Brittons, the Kennedys, and Robert W. Smith, as well as approximately sixty other individuals who built one or two.
Since many early bridge builders had limited knowledge of engineering principles, they often obtained patented truss design plans, several of which were available by 1820. The royalty fee, based upon bridge length, was one to two dollars per lineal foot. Representatives hired by patent owners passed through some areas persuading contractors to follow their plans. In Indiana, ten different truss designs are evident.
The earliest covered bridge builder in our state was allegedly Aaron Wolf, although a few of his bridges appear to have been attributed to his son Henry, or to surnames with various spellings, like Wolfe or Woolf. Aaron built six bridges in three counties between 1838 and 1860, and three of them survive today. One of these is the oldest extant covered bridge in Indiana, Ramp Creek Bridge, which was moved from Putnam County in the 1930s to the north entrance of Brown County State Park.
Joseph J. Daniels was one of the best-known covered bridge builders. He moved to Rockville in 1861, where he managed the construction of nearly fifty road bridges, as well as several railroad bridges, in twelve different counties.
Two families became prominent for building covered bridges: Joseph A. Britton and sons, and the Kennedy family. Britton's first bridge, which spanned Sugar Creek, served as the south entrance to Turkey Run State Park. He and his descendants erected about forty covered bridges during a thirty-three-year period.
The Kennedys were perhaps the most respected, and certainly the most enduring, family of bridge builders in Indiana. The men were excellent craftsmen and successive generations labored for more than forty-eight years to build as many as fifty-eight covered bridges in southeastern counties.
Archibald Kennedy, the patriarch, settled in Rush County from North Carolina in 1825. His sons, Emmett and Charles, assisted him in his bridge-building enterprise. Emmett created a 47-inch-long model of a Burr arch truss bridge (now displayed at the Rush County Historical Society Museum in Rushville), which his father took to county commissioners to demonstrate the principles of bridge engineering.
"Archibald Kennedy was not contented with just the exhibition of the model. His comments on bridges and bridge building were invariably embellished with an endless supply of humorous stories, culminating in a demonstration wherein he placed a book on the little bridge, and then stood upon it in triumph. The man weighed some 250 pounds."
According to covered bridge historian Richard Sanders Allen, Kennedy bridges were easily identifiable by their fancy trim and finish. Tightly overlapped horizontal boards made up the sides; rounded portals were flanked by extending supports with characteristically elaborate scrollwork; and the entire bridge was painted white with the Kennedy name and date of construction prominently displayed at both entrances. The most ornate "village bridges," built in Rushville, Connersville, and Shelbyville, featured sidewalks constructed alongside the exterior walls like long Victorian-era porches, complete with finely turned posts and decorative railings.
Although Emmett Kennedy quit the bridge business in 1892, he was called out of retirement after the flood of 1913. He and his sons, Karl and Charles, built a bridge to replace the damaged Long Bridge near Metamora. They then erected two more covered bridges before iron structures, which had effectively overtaken wooden bridges by the turn of the twentieth century, again became the material of choice.
Covered bridge builder Robert W. Smith was dubbed the Henry Ford of the business. His Smith Bridge Company maintained a lumberyard in Toledo, Ohio, where timbers were cut and fitted together for each covered bridge before being disassembled and shipped by rail or boat to the bridge site. At the construction location, a Smith Company agent or company carpenter would supervise a local crew to reassemble the pre-cut parts.
Smith Bridge Company built approximately forty-five covered bridges in Indiana, including the longest Smith truss structure ever built. The Gosport bridge, which crossed over the west fork of the White River at Gosport on the Monroe-Owen County line, is the same bridge referenced in the James Whitcomb Riley anecdote. It consisted of three 504-foot spans plus a twenty-foot overhang. On the town side, the Monon Railroad tracks crossed the road near the bridge's portal, causing a safety hazard for travelers emerging from the dark wooden tunnel. To mitigate this danger, in 1890 the county replaced the span nearest Gosport with an iron one, leaving two of the covered wooden spans.
The Gosport bridge was closed December 14, 1948 due to weakness, and the roof of one span fell in 1954. "However, residents to the south continued to drive to the abutment, park their cars, climb the ladder to the bridge floor and walk across to Gosport.... On Oct 28, 1955, the wooden bridge was set on fire, but the volunteer fire dept was able to check it. Two days later, however, it again was set afire and was blazing from end to end when the volunteers got on the bridge. Soon the structure became so weakened that it fell into the river with some twenty people on it. The assistant fire chief was pinned under an iron rod and drowned in eighteen inches of water."
Unfortunately, arsonists have been responsible for the loss of several covered bridges in Indiana. I remember a bridge in my home county of Monroe, near Maple Grove Road, that burned in the 1970s. Although originally at least fourteen covered bridges existed in the county, five were lost to suspected arson or vandalism, and four to reservoir construction (three to the building of Monroe Reservoir and one to Lake Lemon). The rest of them apparently deteriorated beyond repair or were moved.
While employed as the Director of State Historic Sites in the late 1990s, I became marginally involved with the covered wooden aqueduct in Metamora. Allegedly the only one in existence today, Duck Creek Aqueduct was built to carry the water-filled canal over the riverbed of Duck Creek in 1843. It had been hastily constructed, and washed out two years later. At that time it was replaced by a new structure featuring framed white oak arches, along with a substantial roof.
After the Civil War, when the canal ceased to operate as a transportation waterway, a section of it was retained to power the local mill. With tons of water constantly flowing through, the aqueduct developed multiple leaks. In 1946 the Department of Conservation took three years to rebuild the structure, using some of the material from the original arches.
By the time the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site came under my management, the aqueduct was again in need of restoration to extend its life. Work was completed on the seventy-foot long bridge, which carries canal water sixteen feet above Duck Creek, in 2005.
When the present-day canal boat, which provides tourist rides through Metamora, enters the aqueduct, the draft horses used to pull the boat are unhitched, then re-engaged at the far end. Usually the forward momentum causes the boat to smoothly drift through the covered aqueduct, but occasionally one of the boat handlers must pull on the tow rope, which he carries along a narrow ledge inside the structure. Occasionally the boat handlers fall into the shallow water. On particularly hot summer days, these dousings are perhaps not so accidental.
Stories about covered bridges are plentiful. Tales of romantic liaisons, haunted bridges, and travelers' odd encounters are typical. In counties where livestock was permitted to roam, people sometimes came upon herds of cattle or sleeping hogs blocking the bridge passage. One story in a 1964 Vigo County Historical Society newsletter told of a birthing:
It seems that shortly before work was completed on [Irishmen's Bridge], when the floor, framework and road had been finished, a long siege of rainy weather set in. After the weather cleared, the workmen returned and found a carpet hung at each end of the bridge and a family in a covered wagon camped there. The young mother had just given birth to a baby in the shelter of the new bridge while seeking protection from the weather. The workmen gallantly left the little family in peace until they were able to move.
In addition to providing temporary shelter for people and animals, covered bridges served as local billboards, with colorful posters announcing upcoming circuses or performances and interior walls advertising local hardware stores or clothiers. Carvings of initials and hearts on the seemingly irresistible wood surfaces also appeared.
Indiana is fortunate to have ninety intact covered bridges, ranking fourth in the total number of them by state. We're also fortunate to have individuals who revere and preserve them. The Indiana Covered Bridge Society is a not-for-profit corporation organized in 1963 to bring attention to the preservation of historic covered bridges. "Through the years, [preservation] has been accomplished by working with local history groups and interested parties to stimulate a sense of pride in protecting their historic bridges."
A concentration of thirty-one covered bridges in Parke County inspired the first Parke County Covered Bridge Festival in 1957. Initiated by William B. "Billy" Hargrave, editor of The Rockville Republican, and Mrs. Juliet Snowden, the festival featured free lectures, bus tours, a barbecue chicken dinner, and a pancake breakfast. Now an annual ten-day affair attracting thousands every October, the festival has helped Parke County save or bypass half a dozen old covered bridges.
Bestowed with nostalgic connections to better days gone by, images of covered bridges have always been a favorite among artists and photographers. Country shops used to sell old jagged-toothed round saws featuring covered bridges, and many plein air (on location) painters today can't resist depicting the barn-like structures.
The unique combination of their enduring functional use, reminiscent associations, and visual beauty has made our covered bridges significant state treasures. Marsha Williamson Mohr has gone to great lengths to photograph the covered bridges remaining in Indiana in the twenty-first century. Her lovely photographs, taken in all seasons, showcase her aesthetic skills as well as her passion for these grand historic structures. Enjoy.
Excerpted from Indiana Covered Bridges by Marsha Williamson Mohr. Copyright © 2012 Marsha Williamson Mohr. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Marsha Williamson Mohr, a freelance photographer, is author of Indiana Barns (IUP, 2010).
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