By Bruce Stambaugh
I’ve been curious about covered bridges for a long time. I wondered about their purpose other than the obvious one of crossing from one side of a stream to another.
My curiosity got the best of me recently. Accompanied by my wife and another couple, we went exploring all 18 of Ashtabula County’s covered bridges. We discovered that the unique architectural wonders were so much more than a conveyance from one bank to another.
If you’re not familiar with Ashtabula County, it’s Ohio’s northeastern most county. It bumps against both Lake Erie on the north and Pennsylvania to the east.
It’s a big county with varied topography and land usage. Its trail of covered bridges is one of its most distinctive features. Most of the bridges are still in use today.
Covered bridge hobbyists admire the intricate architectural details of the wooden tunnels. I focused my admiration on their individual aesthetic characteristics.
Covered bridges were once common across the United States. I wondered why 19th-century builders labored so to simply cover a bridge? I always had heard two main answers to that question.
The bridge had sides and roof so the horses pulling buggies and wagons wouldn’t spook from the sound of rushing water below the bridge or the sudden open space. The other was that the bridge was a respite from foul weather.
Never having driven a horse and buggy, I didn’t question the first reasoning. The second one seemed a bit questionable. I mean you could only get so many horse-drawn vehicles onto a covered bridge during a storm.
Like members of the same family, the bridges had many similar characteristics. Each bridge had its own history and personality.
Some were erected just after the Civil War, with others built more recently. I suspect county leaders recognized the economic value of having a covered bridge trail.
The bridges of Ashtabula County served as living monuments to a bygone era. Hand-hewn timbers joined by wooden pegs spoke of the intensive effort that went into building these nostalgic icons.
The bridges historically contributed to social, political, religious, and economic values of the county. In a way, history was repeating itself.
Besides the obvious purpose of crossing a stream, covered bridges were quite utilitarian. They indeed quieted horses and became a respite during a storm. Since the bridges were constructed entirely of wood, the covered sides and roof also protected the timbers and flooring from the elements and weathering. They minimized repairs.
The bridges had other callings as well. They served as gathering places for community meetings, political rallies, and religious services. Given the inspiring settings of some of the bridges, I could see why folks would like to linger there.
Unfortunately, other folks had little appreciation for either history or public property. Skid marks on the wood decking of some of the bridges evidenced raucous drivers thrilled with the sound of squealing tires. Others painted graffiti or left personal signatures, including an entire school class on an outing. Perhaps that’s why many of the bridges were outfitted with security lights and fire alarms.
After traversing fairly flat countryside for miles, the rural roads suddenly dipped and curved into steep, wooded ravines. The roads often rounded into and out of bridges, creating limited visibility. Passing motorists chased us to a bridge’s side more than once.
Most were courteous and slowed to a crawl. Likely we weren’t the first curious tourists they had encountered on their daily path across history.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2016