Nature Bulletin No. 644 June 3, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
John J. Duffy, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
Covered bridges have a peculiar fascination for most of us. W e wish
they could talk. Many of them are truly historic landmarks. Each one is
a unique and picturesque relic of the days when .America was a young
country. As a locality became more thickly settled the people demanded
roads, improved roads, with bridges across creeks and rivers where
fords or ferries had been the only means of crossing.
There were no steel mills. But there were skilled woodsmen and virgin
forests with huge trees from which they could fashion timbers of any
dimension and length desired. Equally important, in certain regions
there were master builders: craftsmen with shrewd knowledge of
stresses and strains in trusses and arches. That is why covered bridges
were and are so numerous in Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and Indiana. Lack of such men may explain the absence of those
structures in Minnesota and other states where timber was plentiful.
Covered bridges had existed in Europe since medieval times and there
were hundreds of them in Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Apparently the first one in America was the "Permanent Bridge" across
the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia, opened to traffic on January 1,
1805. Its builder, Timothy Palmer of Newburyport, Mass., patented the
arched trusses he used but not "the enclosure of the framework with
weatherboarding and a roof" which he reluctantly added at the
insistence of a prominent stockholder in the company that financed it.
then on, all wooden bridges were covered -- not to strengthen
them or for any other reason except to protect their heavy structural
timbers from the weather. Many were completely covered, and that
added perhaps a hundred years to their useful life but they became
"dark and dusty tunnels". On others the sides were open near the top.
Theodore Burr of Connecticut patented a rectangular truss, supported
by heavy arches, that was more easily covered than Palmer's bridges.
Ithiel Town, of the same state, patented a rectangular "lattice truss"
using heavy planks crisscrossed diagonally. Col. Stephen H. Long, an
army engineer, then designed a truss far more economical in its use of
massive timbers and he was followed by William Howe who substituted
wrought iron rods for the vertical wooden tension members in Long's
Covered bridges came to the Middle West when the first one was built
across the White river at Indianapolis in 1831. At one time there were
about 600 in Indiana but only 149 remain -- 38 of them in Parke county,
which holds a covered bridge festival each autumn in Rockville. At
Crown Point, in Hamilton Park, you can see one that was obtained from
southeastern Indiana and rebuilt.
1845 and 1890, at least 200 covered bridges were constructed
in Illinois. Only 9 remain and the one closest to Chicago is the Red
Bridge near Princeton, in Bureau county. They were numerous in
central Illinois. We old-timers remember the clop-clop of hoofs and the
rumble of farm wagons in those tunnels across the creeks. They were
refuges during thunder storms and places to rest your horses or gossip
with a neighbor.
Typically, above each entrance there was a warning: "Five Dollars Fine
for Driving faster than a Walk" Inside there were posters advertising
auctions, picnics, chewing tobacco, patent medicines, axle grease and
horseshoes. Barn swallows nested beneath the rafters and phoebes
beneath the floors.
Covered bridges are romantic links with a more leisurely past.
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Update: June 2012