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Published: Sunday, 9/23/2007

Whispers of the past: Ohio s covered bridges are reminders of our history

BY SALLY VALLONGO
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mull Covered Bridge: An 1842 Town lattice bridge reaches 100 feet across the East Branch of Wolf Creek on County Road 9-0 near Old Fort, Ohio. Renovated in 1990. Open only to foot traffic. Mull Covered Bridge: An 1842 Town lattice bridge reaches 100 feet across the East Branch of Wolf Creek on County Road 9-0 near Old Fort, Ohio. Renovated in 1990. Open only to foot traffic.
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The American covered bridge has inspired more poets and painters than has perhaps any other familiar object of our native landscapes. David Steinman, author of Bridges and their Builders.


If historic bridges are your passion, Ohio s got you covered.

With some 138 bridges extant, and second only to Pennsylvania in today s national covered bridge census, the Buckeye State was and continues to be a leader in building, maintaining, and restoring the attractive spans.

Since 1804, when America s first covered bridge went up over the Schulkyll River in Philadelphia, the structures became icons of progressive public works. Visitors came from near and far to marvel at their construction.

Beloved landmarks, the cozy trussed and roofed bridges served as shelters, as gathering places for country folk to discuss politics and policy, to gossip, to trade, to dine, to dance, and, oh yes, to occasionally steal a kiss. Farm animals were less skittish crossing a covered bridge. And, protected from the elements, covered bridge timbers held up for decades of service.

Sleepy Hollow Bridge: Built as the entrance to a Sylvania subdivision. It is 87 feet long and spans Ten Mile Creek just off Olde Post Road. Sleepy Hollow Bridge: Built as the entrance to a Sylvania subdivision. It is 87 feet long and spans Ten Mile Creek just off Olde Post Road.
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By the 1870s, of the 10,000 or so covered bridges in the U.S., Ohio counted 3,500 inside its borders. Moreover, it had emerged as a center of Midwestern bridge-building.

New truss designs were developed by Buckeye innovators including August Boneman of Hocking County, Blue Jeans Brandt of Lancaster, and Reuben Partridge, of Union County.

Perhaps the most notable of all, Robert W. Smith of Tipp City, flourished and moved his eponymous bridge-building company to Toledo. Here, Mr. Smith s enterprise grew into a large, innovative and successful regional firm.

But with the onset of iron, steel, and concrete as more modern and inexpensive materials, covered bridges lost ground dramatically. Only during World War I did shortages of basic materials drive a brief return to construction of timber bridges.

Lockport Covered Bridge: This is a 1999 replica of an 1860s historic bridge across the Tiffin River on county roads 21N and I25 in Williams County. Lockport Covered Bridge: This is a 1999 replica of an 1860s historic bridge across the Tiffin River on county roads 21N and I25 in Williams County.
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Then, in the last half of the 20th century these romantic yet practical landmarks began to regain value in the public eye. The Federal Highway Administration set up a fund earmarked for identifying and restoring historic bridges.

In the last two decades covered bridges have become increasingly valuable icons of our past, noted historian Lola Bennett, a curator for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service when that institution developed a show, Covered Bridges, Spanning the American Landscape, in 2006.

In 1960, a group which later became known as the Ohio Historic Bridge Association began its long campaign to salvage and restore covered bridges, particularly those in central and southern Ohio. Some bridges were disassembled and relocated, often with more durable materials. Some were left in place but reinforced with steel beams.

County engineers applauded such hybrids while preservationists wrung their hands. Arnold Graton, Jr., a New England restoration builder who loves old bridges, said attempts to merge current state transportation department standards with historic construction techniques results in bridges that may accommodate nearly all traffic yet have little connection to the original structure.

It is my contention that we should be striving to preserve, not just the outward appearance of our covered bridges, but also the design, workmanship and technology of the original builders, he said at a 2003 convention of covered bridge experts and aficionados.

But interestingly enough, the newest covered bridges being built in Ohio are using time-tested techniques, including old-fashioned trusses, and wood timbers. Even better, building new covered bridges according to old designs, instead of concrete and steel structures, is gaining credibility and popularity.

According to bridge historian Joseph D. Conwill, over 600 new covered bridges were built between 1950 and 1980 in the United States.

Toledoans can cross 10-Mile Creek on a covered footbridge at Wildwood Preserve Metropark. They can drive over the Sleepy Hollow subdivision bridge in Sylvania; the Raintree Village off Alexis Road, and the Meadowbrook Estates just off Reynolds Road, and can view the Hidden Hollow bridge just off Larkhaven Drive in the Franklin Park area.

Since 1999, the Lockport Bridge in Williams County has serviced the Tiffin River crossing at county roads I-25 and 21-N. It s one of two new spans in the northwestern county.

You can drive a semi right through one, says Willis Allamong, county operations manager. They have to be able to handle the same [height and weight] limits as any steel and concrete bridge. The other bridge crosses the St. Joseph River at the Williams County Fairgrounds in Montpelier. Both are two-lane and offer covered pedestrian walkways.

They were harder to build, notes Mr. Allamong, but you don t have to do a lot of maintenance on them. Built with treated lumber, the bridges required timber-framing expertise, not very different from the original covered bridges, which were often derived from barns. Retired county engineer Walter Schelling, a fan of historic construction, was the force behind both bridges being built.

Mr. Allamong admits, I wouldn t go out of my way to drive across it, yet he does anyway, for preserving them is part of his job. I go through and make sure there s no loose bolts or nuts. We have had to clean graffiti off, basically sand it off, he said. Down the road, no doubt, is an update for the wood treatment, to ward off insects.

Although he claims new covered bridges in Ohio are and will be an anomaly among all bridge construction projects, state bridge engineer Tim Keller and his staff dug into an endeavor that has attracted interest from far and wide a thorough inventory of historic bridges that can be found at www.dot.state.oh.us/se/coveredbridges.

We took photos while we were out on other business, Mr. Keller says, admitting that the bridges are not only elegant but have a romance about them.

We felt there was an interest and we did hit it. Many people have e-mailed us and thanked us for the work. A few counties that take great pride in their bridges and are in business of maintaining them.

Among those counties are Preble, west of Dayton, where seasonal meetings of the Ohio Historic Bridge Association always include a special feature such as a tour, book report, or slide show. Preble County also is the site of another brand span the Big Darby Creek Bridge, a 160-foot crossing that opened in May.

Fairfield County, northwest of Columbus, and Ashtabula County both have 16 covered bridges, notes Mark Berger, a Fairfield County photographer whose shots of covered bridges around the state are accessible on the Internet at www.visitfairfieldcountyoh.org.

They re romantic. I like that era of history, he says, noting that when he was shooting the Wistwell bridge in Ashtabula County, he had the thrill of watching historic cars chugging across the historical bridge. It meant a lot to me.

Only Ashtabula has transformed its bridges into a tourist enterprise way beyond the realm of, say, Madison County, Iowa.

In her donated quarters in the old county courthouse in Jefferson, Ohio, Betty Morrison, a founder and mainstay of the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival, a not-for-profit organization founded 24 years ago, is ebullient talking about the latest new bridge to rise not far away.

We are just so excited. We got our funding in 1999 and broke ground in July, 2006. We re working with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the county, and the Federal Highway Administration.

We re spending $7.5 million on the project, Ms. Morrison says, noting that the funds are federal enhancement money targeted only for covered bridges. Part of the money is going to change the alignment of approach roads, she adds.

Ashtabula County, under the leadership of now- retired county engineer John Smollen, tapped the same federal funds before for covered bridges.

This new-old construction will be 600 feet long and is to span the Ashtabula River in one of the county parks. It will feature Pratt trusses, wood siding with a metal roof, and a covered walkway.

The covered bridge will be 600 feet the longest in U.S. and fourth longest in the world, the director promises. The bridge will open in 2008. Morrison adds they are seeking Ohio Scenic River designation for the river. And, it will be the 25th year for the festival, which has become a major economic force in the county.

The Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival is set for Oct. 13-14 in Jefferson, Ohio. Gates open at 8 a.m. both days, with pancake breakfasts in the Expo Center. Van tours begin at 8 a.m. both days.

On Saturday a parade will kick off activities including exhibits, contests -- a mini-covered bridge contest and a sketching contest -- and live music. More information is available at 440-576-3769 or www.coveredbridgefestival.org/festival.htm.

We have 16 covered bridges and you can drive through 15 of ours, Ms. Morrison says of the Fairfield County covered bridge challenge. Since 1983 we have built covered bridges. The county marked its 175th anniversary in 1986 with the dedication of another bridge. Two more were added in 1995 and 1998.

She notes that the covered bridge festival started two years before the county convention bureau was created. Today, she says, the bureau provides travelers coming for the bridge tour with lodging, dining, and other entertainment information.

Indeed, covered bridges now are gaining ground in Ohio s burgeoning travel and tourism industry, particularly in the southern and central counties, as well as Ashtabula up north.

The covered bridges in Vinton County are quickly becoming an important part of the total tourist experience, says Toledoan Steven Fought, a long-time staffer for U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur. A native of Mercer County, which has no covered bridges, Mr. Fought was drawn to Vinton, a southern Ohio county, for its natural beauty and history and its five historic covered spans.

Near his property in the shadow of Hocking Hills State Park is the 40-foot Cox Bridge, an 1884 structure that crosses Brushy Creek. Moved from its original site and closed to vehicle traffic, it now beckons to hikers and picnickers, Mr. Fought says.

When you complement the natural beauty of the area with these treasures from a bygone era, you create a powerful tourist magnet and create an economic development asset. Over the years, Vinton County relied on extractive industries, such as iron and lumber, but it remained poor. The tourist economy is the county s real competitive advantage, and the covered bridges are an important part of that strategy, Fought says.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.

Robert W. Smith, born in 1833 in Tipp City, Ohio, was the son of a cabinetmaker and grew up to become first a carpenter credited with inventing a roof truss for barns.

He received his first bridge patent in 1867, the same year he built five bridges. In 1868 he constructed 22 covered spans, and in 1869 completed 75 bridges. That year he moved his company to Toledo. In 1870 he reorganized it as a joint stock company and served as president until 1890.

During the company's operation hundreds of covered bridges of wood and later, of iron, were built for installation throughout the Midwest and as far away as California.

Matthew Reckard, an engineer in Bloomington, Ind., notes that Smith's methods were prescient in design. "Smith trusses were produced in a manner very much at odds with the romantic conception of covered bridges as a product of pre-industrial times," he wrote in a paper delivered at a 2003 national conference for covered bridge aficionados.

"Instead, they show many features characteristic of the late 19th century industrial age." Bridges were prefabricated in Toledo, then shipped out for installation by company crews. Moreover, Smith invented and used mass-production machinery in creation of what is estimated to be thousands of bridges. Several dozen of his bridges survive, including a dozen or so in Ohio.

After he sold the company, it became the Toledo Bridge Co., and, in 1901, was purchased by J.P. Morgan, combined with 24 other bridge firms and became part of the American Bridge Co., still in operation today from headquarters in Coraopolis, Pa.

• Blue Jeans Brandt of Lancaster, OH, who framed bridges in his front yard, then hauled them precut to the site for rapid assembly.

• August Boneman of Hocking Valley Bridge Works.

• Joseph J. Daniels, who began building bridges in Ohio and then moved to Parke County, Indiana

• Reuben Partridge of Union County, OH., designed a variation of the Smith design, adding metal "shoes" at the joints.

• Daniel C. McCallum developed a truss design for the Erie Railroad



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