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Covered Bridges
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.

From 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 truss.

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.

Between 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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