Covered Bridges Discovering A North American Living History

Covered Bridges Discovering A North American Living History

Covered Bridges first appeared in​ the U.S. around 1805, but the history of​ these monuments to​ another age date back thousands of​ years to​ China. Covered bridges had also existed in​ Europe since medieval times and​ there were once hundreds of​ them in​ Switzerland, Austria and​ Germany.

But it’s here in​ the Northeastern U.S., where wooden covered bridge design and​ construction​ reached its pinnacle in​ the nineteenth century. a​ combination​ of​ pressing need, plentiful old growth northern forests, and​ sheer Yankee ingenuity, advanced the development of​ wooden covered bridges to​ a​ rare combination​ of​ marvelous engineering feats that were also pleasing to​ the eye.


The northeast is​ a​ region​ of​ rivers, streams and​ creeks. as​ the population​ surged out away from coastal areas into the forested interior, villages sprung up near water sources. The water source was used to​ power mills in​ these towns, and​ villages often developed on​ both banks of​ a​ stream or​ river. Bridges were the obvious answer to​ connect these divided communities, and​ provide access for​ townsfolk to​ things like school, worship, and​ supplies.

But why cover them?

While much speculation​ has been put forth on​ this​ topic; the simple answer is​ protection​ against the weather for​ the bridge. Here in​ New England, where I live, covered wooden bridges last about three times as​ long as​ those exposed to​ the elements, and​ reduce bridge maintenance as​ well. During the 19th and​ early 20th century very few bridges built were not covered.


Most historians agree the first covered bridge in​ America was The Permanent Bridge completed in​ 1805 in​ Pennsylvania, originally designed by Timothy Palmer from New England. The longest known covered bridge is​ The Hartland​ in​ New Brunswick, Canada, which at​ 1,282 feet spans the Saint John River.

But perhaps the most famous covered bridges are in​ Madison​ County, Iowa. The Bridges of​ Madison​ County used to​ number 19, but today only six survive. Robert James Waller’s novel, and​ the movie of​ the same name, popularized these bridges to​ millions worldwide, and​ also provided evidence that covered bridges in​ North America are by no means limited to​ the Northeast region.

A question​ often asked is​ why so many of​ the bridges are painted red on​ the outside?

Historians believe the red coating makes the bridge seem more like a​ barn to​ a​ horse, and​ as​ horses tended to​ be skittish about crossing above flowing water, the illusion​ helped farmers and​ travelers navigate the obstacle with little incident from their four-legged friends.


As the twentieth century progressed bridge construction​ changed and​ metal manufactured truss bridges became first choice over wood. The ease of​ construction, increased strength, and​ low cost of​ these metal bridges became too overwhelming to​ ignore for​ budget conscious communities in​ the U.S.

The "work horse" bridges of​ the 19th century gave way to​ economics, and​ most wooden covered bridges in​ the U.S. quickly disappeared, except for​ the 800 left for​ admirers to​ view today. Though many of​ the remaining covered bridges still carry traffic - even cars - most are kept and​ maintained for​ tourism, and​ as​ a​ reminder of​ our heritage.


for​ sheer volume Pennsylvania and​ Vermont take honors, accounting for​ well over a​ third of​ the remaining bridges.

Self-guided tours are also popular in​ New England​ for​ covered bridge vacations, particularly in​ Vermont and​ New Hampshire where many of​ the bridges are close to​ other destination​ and​ attraction​ spots.

As a​ covered bridge enthusiast I can tell you​ half the fun is​ finding the bridges. The major highways bypassed the roads where most bridges are located many years ago, making the remoteness of​ a​ covered bridge sometimes an​ adventure in​ locating. While covered bridges make ideal photo opportunities there’s much more to​ view than just a​ pretty picture.

Experts suggest appreciating the bridge by first taking in​ the design and​ massive timbers used in​ the framework. for​ authentic bridges these timbers came from virgin​ forests where 100 feet high trees were common.

As you​ view an​ authentic covered bridge remember it​ was built for​ a​ simple functional purpose - getting from one bank to​ other. But it​ was constructed with the skill and​ care of​ craftsmen, who’ve unwittingly left a​ rich heritage for​ future generations to​ enjoy. Treasure these woodworking masterpieces as​ you​ travel rural North America, and​ rediscover a​ symbol of​ the pioneering spirit that embraced both U.S. and​ Canada during the nineteenth century.

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