Cherished Bridges to the Past
Ashtabula County’s annual covered bridge festival is scheduled for October 9 and 10. State park accommodations nearby include the new resort lodge at Geneva, along with the park’s cedar cabins and campground, as well as the campground and vacation cottages at Pymatuning.
It’s little wonder that covered bridges evoke such strong feelings of nostalgia. Each one is a unique, handcrafted work of art. Their quaint designs and rustic settings are reminiscent of a simpler time, long ago. Most of Ohio’s historic covered bridges that have survived in their original location are situated on quiet byways or alongside abandoned roads that were bypassed generations ago as the state’s modern highway system evolved. The day-dreamy quality of these remote locales stokes the imagination, conjuring up the phantom clamber of horses’ hooves and the creak of wood on wood as polished wagon wheels grind against the worn bridge floor.
Ohio’s first roads were little more than bridle trails, and occasional stream fords were a minor inconvenience. As the traffic began to pick up with settlers pulling wagons filled with household goods and passengers, though, the bumpy, mud-splattered ride raised pioneer ire. The innovative road builders of the day spanned the creeks and rivers with sturdy trusses made from massive wooden beams connected to each other with primitive mortise and tenon joints (similar to a tab inserted in a slot) secured with wooden pegs. Over time, the truss designs evolved from a simple pair of right triangles to a complex lattice pattern, allowing the bridges to span longer distances. Enclosing the trusses in a cottage-like cover was a practical, low-maintenance alternative to ensure that the wooden structure could withstand the test of time and weather.
The first documented covered bridge in Ohio was built across Little Beaver Creek in Columbiana County in 1809. The development of Ohio’s canal systems created even more waterways in need of bridges, and the construction of covered bridges in Ohio steadily increased, peaking in the 1870s and 1880s. In all, more than 3,700 covered bridges were built over Ohio streams and canals.
Despite the popularity of covered bridges and their amazing longevity, several factors contributed to their eventual decline. The devastating floods of 1913 destroyed a number of covered bridges, and by then, the blossoming steel and concrete industries offered a quick and inexpensive alternative for their replacement. The new materials were easy to use and the designs did not require the craftsmanship demanded of the covered bridge builders. Without the wood trusses to protect from the weather, the cover was no longer necessary, and bridge designs were simplified.
Today, 140 of Ohio’s historic covered bridges remain, and 61 of these continue to carry traffic after more than a century of continuous use. Nationally, Ohio ranks with Pennsylvania as the states offering the most intact covered bridges. Within Ohio, Ashtabula and Fairfield counties boast the greatest concentrations of historic covered bridges.
The Thomas Malone Covered Bridge at Beaver Creek State Park spans the brook that babbles beside historic Gaston’s Mill. The 1870-vintage bridge was originally built over the Middle Fork of Little Beaver Creek, and moved to its current picturesque location in 1971. Mohican State Park’s scenic covered bridge over the Clearfork-Mohican River is a modern tribute to the covered bridges of bygone days.
Ohio State Parks are ideal places to combine two of fall’s favorite pastimes-leaf peeping and covered bridging. Historic covered bridges are typically located astride waterways, where the fall color pops bright and early due to abundant moisture. Many of the covered bridges that dot the Ohio countryside are located a short drive from our state parks.