International Covered Bridge History
International Covered Bridge history shows no evidence of timber-truss bridges, with or without covering, in the ancient world, but the 13th-century French sketchbook depicts a version of a truss bridge, and an Italian book printed in 1570 describes four truss designs. The first covered bridges were built in Europe placing horizontal beams on top of piles driven into the water. This limited the length of a span but was much cheaper and easier to build than a stone bridge. The timber truss was developed and allowed for much longer spans. German-covered bridges began using panel bracing to strengthen their bridges.
As part of International Covered Bridge history, Switzerland currently has over 300 timber-covered bridges and several of them are very noble. The Kapellbrücke, “Chapel Bridge” is Europe’s, and possibly the world’s, oldest standing covered bridge. The city of Lucerne is especially well-known for its wooden bridges. Today, the Chapel Bridge runs from the New Town on the southern bank of the Reuss River to the medieval Old Town. The bridge bends as it leaves the shore, then angles across the river past a stone Wasserturm (Water Tower) that is believed to have once served as the lucerna, or lighthouse, after which the town was named. Built in 1332 as part of the city fortifications, the bridge has been decorated since 1599 with 112 paintings in the triangular spaces between roofs and crossbeams, depicting the history of the town and the lives of its two patron saints.
Further downriver, the Spreuerbrücke or Mill Bridge zigzags across the Reuss River as well. Covered Bridge history states it was constructed in 1408, and features a series of medieval-style 17th Century plague paintings by Kaspar Meglinger titled "Dance of Death." It has a small chapel in the middle of the bridge that was added in 1568.
In the 18th century, the Grubenmann brothers of Switzerland built covered timber bridges of considerable length, notably an arch-truss bridge over the Limmat River in Baden with a clear span of 60 meters (200 feet).
A large part of International Covered Bridge history is Germany's 70 surviving historic wooden covered bridges. One spans the Germany / Switzerland border over the river Rhine from Bad Säckingen, Germany, to Stein, Switzerland, first built before 1272, later destroyed and rebuilt many times.
The Czech Republic has Český Krumlov Castle Bridge.
In Bulgaria, there is the notable Lovech Covered Bridge over the River Osam.
Italy has the Ponte Vecchio over the River Brenta in Bassano del Grappa and Ponte Coperto over the Ticino River in Pavia.
Some stone arch bridges are covered to protect pedestrians or as decoration as well.
When the first Europeans set foot in North America, there were already covered bridges in Europe and Asia. From the early 18th and up to the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of wooden covered bridges were built in Quebec. Protecting a bridge using a roof was a technique that had already been in existence for centuries.
Compared to the United States, Canada's Covered Bridge history began relatively late with the construction of covered bridges. The greatest number of covered bridges in Canada were constructed in the 1930s, far after the United States had stopped building them at all. The initial design of Canadian covered bridges was quite varied, but they standardized by about 1905 to the Town Quebecois variety, which was a variation on the lattice truss design that the town of Ithiel patented in 1820.
A major subject of International Covered Bridge history is the five hundred Town Quebecois-covered bridges built between 1900 and 1950. The last covered bridge known to have been built in Canada was constructed in 1958 in Lebel Sur Quevillon in Quebec. The province of Quebec currently has eighty-two covered bridges, which includes the province’s longest covered bridge, the Felix Gabriel Marchand Bridge.
Canada can also boast of being the home to the current longest covered bridge in the world. This is the Hartland Bridge in New Brunswick. New Brunswick had about four hundred covered bridges in 1900 but now has fifty-eight in the entire province.
There were once about a thousand covered bridges in Quebec alone in 1900. Since 1969. The number of covered bridges that still exist in the entire Canadian nation went from about four hundred to under two hundred bridges.
Although most International Covered Bridge historians attribute covered bridges originated in Europe, covered bridges have been around since ancient China. Recorded Chinese history has mentioned them since the early dynasties over a thousand years ago. In China today it is estimated that at least 3000 covered bridges, called generically langqiao 廊桥, are still standing. These are pier and girder bridges, not truss bridges. Old bridges in China, like other old structures, continue to be lost due to floods, typhoons, vandalism, and fire, as well as a replacement by modern structures to meet current needs.
It is usually difficult to spot the ruins of old covered bridges because timbers and stone were usually quickly scavenged for use as building materials elsewhere, chiseled out rock, and approaches continue to hint at past bridge structures. Some covered bridges in China are relatively level structures with gradual approaches, just as they are typically found elsewhere in the world. Others are formed as arch bridges. In Fujian and Zhejiang, many timber arch structures rear up rather abruptly from their abutments, as they cross over a steep chasm or even a relatively level streambed. Local people refer to these as “centipede bridges.”
Unlike our patented truss designs in the US, Chinese-covered bridges were constructed mostly using a 'woven timber' design. There are few master craftsmen left in China who are skilled in this method of bridge construction, but the country has finally recognized the historical importance of these bridges, and China is now involved in the preservation of their covered bridges, along with training younger craftsmen the art of timber weaving in bridge construction. Amazingly, they are constructed without the use of screws, nails, or other metal fasteners. The pagoda-like pavilions built above the bridges not only served as meeting areas but also increased the stability of the structure by adding additional weight. In North America, covered bridge building was always considered as a means for protecting the patented trusses from weathering, but never as adding weight to help stabilize the wooden structure.
China’s covered bridges highlight a timber substructure, including both a variety of cantilevered forms and extraordinary “woven arch/woven arch-beam” type structures, that until the last quarter of the 20th century was believed to have died out more than a millennium earlier.
The association of bridges with temples and shrines is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Bridges often were built adjacent to temples and even inside temple precincts. Sometimes the names of a bridge and nearby temple or shrine were the same. Maybe why we sometimes hear the phrase, “Where there is a bridge, there is a temple; where there is a temple, there is a bridge.” In the countryside in Fujian, Zhejiang, and even Jiangxi provinces where folk religion is still evident, the central portion of most covered bridges contain shrines and altars to major gods in the Daoist or Buddhist pantheon, as well as lesser local or regional gods.
These ancient structures not only serve as bridges and a place for worship but are cultural centers for the villages where they stand. They are, and always have been a meeting place, a place for weary travelers to rest, a place to sell local goods, a place for women to make handicrafts while watching young children, a place to escape foul weather, a place for enjoying cool passing breezes, and a place to celebrate village life and the cultural traditions of the people surrounding them.
Archaeological evidence in 2001 uncovered China’s earliest ‘corridor bridge’ with a length of 42 meters dating to the Han dynasty 2000 years ago. Known as the Rulong Bridge, it dates back to 1625 and is documented as the oldest standing woven arch-beam bridge. Even older, a covered bridge with parallel log beams as the substructure is still standing in the neighboring Fujian province, the Zhiqing Bridge, which dates back to 1490.
Rather than being abandoned as artifacts from the past, China’s langqiao today represents a living tradition that continues serving rural communities as places of passage, spaces for leisure and marketing, sites for worship, and increasingly destinations for tourists in search of nostalgic connections with China’s past. The discovery of the significance of the architectural typology known in China as the "corridor bridge" has emerged slowly. It wasn’t until 1977, when China opened to tourism, that research into their bridge-building began.
For more information on International Covered Bridge History visit:
- Swiss Timber Bridges - www.swiss-timber-bridges.ch
- World Guide to Covered Bridges
- China's Covered Bridges: Architecture over Water - - - by Ronald G. Knapp and Terry W. Miller