Maryland's covered bridges recall a rustic time and peace

October 31, 1993|By Amy Davis | Amy Davis,Contributing Writer

The immensely popular novel "The Bridges of Madison County" has captivated many as it continues to top best-seller lists. So it's not surprising that interest in our local covered bridges has also been aroused.

What better time to pay homage than now, with the backdrop of autumn's colors to set off the bridges? Stand on the banks by these structures, as others have done since the mid-1800s, and watch bronze and crimson leaves drift downward into the water. Take some back roads, where you will readily find other reminders of the way life used to be.

Once home to more than 50 covered bridges, Maryland now has only eight. Most of the old wooden structures succumbed to the inevitable hazards of fires, floods or storms. Those that weathered the elements later fell victim to the modern onslaught of progress or careless upkeep.

A look at the surviving bridges shows their tenuous existence. One of the eight, Loy's Station Bridge in Frederick County, was destroyed by arson two years ago and is now dismantled. Reconstruction has just begun. The other two Frederick County covered bridges were seriously damaged by vehicular accidents, but have been repaired.

Another survivor of sorts, Burdette's Bridge in Howard County, built around 1942, is now a plywood shell replacement over a tributary of the south branch of the Patapsco River. It bears scant resemblance to its predecessor, a cheery structure with red siding that sometimes sheltered cows.

What sets covered bridges apart from their modern-day cousins? Mostly, it's their construction.

They were traditionally built with wood, with a skeleton, or truss, made of large timbers joined so as to support each other, plus the load placed upon the whole span. The bridge-builder's craftsmanship has helped earn covered bridges a devoted following.

But for most people, who probably never ponder the difference between a kingpost or Burr-truss design, it is the simple fact that the bridges are covered that creates their appeal. To walk inside the darkened interior and study the massive timbers, or rumble over the wide planking in a car, is to briefly enter a time tunnel, transported back to a simpler, quieter time.

Colorful explanations have sprouted as to why bridges were covered. Some thought the roofing kept horses from being startled, or misled them into thinking they were entering a barn. Others figured the builders were thoughtful, providing a shelter in a storm for travelers. Not to mention the romantic possibilities, which earned these enclosures the nickname of "kissin' bridges."

The real reason, mundane but irrefutable, is that the covering protects the truss members from the elements that rot wood, that harmful combination of sun and rain.

Here's where you can find covered bridges in our area:

Catoctin Mountains

Frederick County lays claim to the most covered bridges, three in all. Loy's Station Bridge in Thurmont, which was destroyed after an arson in 1991, is being reconstructed, thanks in part to the efforts of the Frederick County Covered Bridge Preservation Society, an active band of covered-bridge aficionados. The bridge should be open by next summer, with some of the original timbers reused.

The other two covered bridges in the Catoctin Mountains, Utica Mills and Roddy Road, are worth a trip. Utica Mills Bridge, on Utica Road about halfway between Frederick and Thurmont, was built in 1850.

It originally spanned the Monocacy River three miles east of its current location, but after a flood in 1889, the surviving half was moved downstream to the more modest Fishing Creek. Inside the 101-foot span, you can see timbers with what seem to be extra notches where the beams once interlocked, evidence that it was originally constructed at a different site.

Its design is called a Burr truss, named after Theodore Burr, a pioneer bridge builder from Connecticut who designed and built bridges up and down the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Patented at the turn of the 19th century, Burr's design consists of a great arch, in connection with kingpost trusses, which form the basic covered bridge framework of vertical and diagonal stress-bearing timbers. These massive arches were warped, not hewn, in a slow, deliberate process, with results that are still impressive today.

From Utica Mills, travel farther north, with a pause for some crisp local apples at one of the many roadside markets along Route 15. Also worth a detour is the Catoctin Furnace on Route 806, just south of Thurmont, which made iron for Revolutionary and Civil War arms.

Roddy Road Covered Bridge traverses Owens Creek, north of Thurmont off Route 15. This may be Maryland's most charming bridge, in a setting still rustic 100 years after it was built.

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