United States Covered Bridge History
The United States Covered Bridge history spans approximately 14,000 covered bridges built over the past two and a half centuries in the US, mostly between the years of 1825 through 1875. An estimated 3,500 of these bridges were located in Ohio alone. In 2009, the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges calculated that only 814 remained. Today, surviving covered bridges have been reduced to even fewer than 800. Every year the U.S. loses several covered bridges to natural disasters, arsonists, and replacement.
According to United States history, ferries to transport horses, passengers, and buggies to the other side of the rivers came long before covered bridges. Many of these were run by merchants holding a monopoly on the local economy with the fees from the ferries. This prompted taxpayers to build bridges that would be free to all travelers after a period of tolls to help offset costs.
United States Covered Bridge History tells us that the first known covered bridge constructed in the US was the Permanent Bridge, completed in 1805 to span the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. After five years of construction, it spanned the 550-foot width of the river with a series of arches and was 1300 feet long in total construction. Designed by Timothy Palmer, the bridged was eventually destroyed by fire in 1850.
However, most other early examples in our United States Covered Bridge history didn't appear until the 1820s. Bridges from that decade include New York's Hyde Hall Bridge and Pennsylvania's Hassenplug Bridge, both built-in 1825, but no longer surviving, and the Haverhill–Bath Covered Bridge and the Roberts Covered Bridge, in New Hampshire and Ohio respectively, both built-in 1829. The longest, historical covered bridges remaining in the United States are the Cornish–Windsor Bridge, spanning the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont, and Medora Bridge, spanning the East Fork of the White River in Indiana. Both lay some claim to the “longest” depending upon how the length is measured. Built in 2008, the Smolen-Gulf Bridge in Ohio is the longest covered bridge in the US at 613 feet, although it is not a historical covered bridge.
Covered timber-truss bridges soon spanned rivers from Maine to Florida and rapidly spread westward. Sadly, the construction of wood-covered bridges began to slow down by the mid-1800s from the development of cheaper wrought iron and cast iron. Unlike timber trusses, metal structures did not need protection from the elements, so bridges no longer needed to be covered. Covered bridges also became obsolete because most were single-lane, had low width and height clearances, and could not support the heavy loads of modern traffic.
Pennsylvania ranks high in the minds of covered bridge lovers. At least 1,500 were built between 1820 and 1900 and Pennsylvania currently has the largest number of covered bridges in the nation: 219 in 40 of its 67 counties. The longest covered bridge in history was built in 1814 in Lancaster County, Pa., at a distance of 5,960 feet more than a mile. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1832 by ice and high water.
Several other states stand out in the world of existing covered bridges: Ohio, Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Oregon on the west coast of the US. Information and brochures on self-driven bridge tours within these states can be easily found on the internet.
Although covered timber-trussed bridges no longer serve the needs of most of the nation’s roads, there are people and organizations who are committed to keeping the nation’s covered bridge history intact. They are dedicated to making sure the surviving bridges are protected. By doing so, the pure beauty and charm, as well as the important history of these bridges, are sure to be protected for generations to come.
More information and United States Covered Bridge history can be found at:
- National Society for Preservation of Covered Bridges - www.coveredbridgesociety.org
- Dale J. Travis Covered Bridges - www.dalejtravis.com/bridge/cbridges.htm
- World Guide to Covered Bridges