The Bridges

Of Lancaster County

A fall driving tour of covered bridges in Amish country takes the traveler back to the days of horse and buggy.


Cover Story

October 12, 2003|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

If you'd like to spend an afternoon absorbing the rustic, historic and uncommonly lovely phenomenon that is a covered bridge in autumn, you do not have far to go. Pennsylvania, with more than 200 covered bridges, has the most remaining of any state in the union; Lancaster County, with 29, has the largest concentration in Pennsylvania.

What, did you think you had to go to Iowa?

Madison County, Iowa, became famous for its covered bridges when Robert James Waller set his 1992 novel, The Bridges of Madison County, there, and the 1995 Clint Eastwood / Meryl Streep movie was filmed on location.

In the story, the Roseman Bridge is the place photographer Robert Kincaid is looking for when he stops at Francesca Johnson's to ask directions; the Cedar Bridge, pictured on the novel's cover, is a location where she helps him take photographs.

These bridges' fame has done nothing for their longevity, however. The Cedar Bridge was burned last year; two others were attacked by arsonists last month. Only five bridges are left in Madison County.

Arson is one of many problems facing covered bridges -- their numbers are constantly dwindling everywhere (Maryland has only eight covered bridges). Even during the research for this article, it turned out that one of the Lancaster County bridges we planned to visit, Risser's Mill, had recently burned.

But the covered bridges that remain, cunning and sturdy in their design, have endured more than a century, sometimes closer to two, of rain, flooding, snow, wind, fire, neglect, overloaded vehicles and growing traffic through their narrow openings and single lanes.

Many of the bridges on our driving tour below have been restored, rebuilt or moved, and all have required maintenance and protection. Lancaster County's continued wealth of covered bridges has to do with several factors.

Like the rest of Pennsylvania, the area has an abundance of rivers, streams and creeks, and these had to be forded to develop trade and agriculture in the area and to forge on westward.

Pennsylvania not only had the first covered bridge, it also had the most during the peak of the construction period (roughly 1830-1880). The fact that so many remain can be attributed to Lancaster's predominantly rural lifestyle -- lots of buggy-driving Amish, few tractor-trailers -- along with the well-established preservationist consciousness of a place that has long been a tourist destination.

As Brian J. McKee explains in the introduction to his 1997 book of photographs, Historic American Covered Bridges, the first covered bridge in America was built in 1805 over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Called the Permanent Bridge, it has long since disappeared. But the roof and siding constructed to protect its wooden trusses and roadbed from the effects of weather were an innovation that inspired a century of covered-bridge builders.

Today, the first thing people wonder about these bridges is why they were covered. That question shows how little we can imagine life without steel I-beams and snowplows. In the early 19th century, wheeled vehicles were banished to barns in the winter and replaced by sleighs and horses.

Snow-plowing of the period involved large, barrel-like vehicles that rolled the snow flat and hard. But a wooden bridge couldn't support the weight of a long winter's snow. Hence the roof.

There were other benefits from, if not reasons for, the covering of bridges. "Kissing bridges," as they are still known, were famous for providing a rare private moment for couples. (Today, that's the kind of place where you want to put a Web cam.)

A little shade and shelter were reason enough to pause on a covered bridge for the less amorous. Then, as now, they were irresistible to children for racing, hiding, climbing on and jumping from, the setting of innumerable ghost stories and a place to make wishes. Their sides were among the first billboards, used to advertise patent medicines, political candidates, religious messages and undertakers, and they became gathering places for everything from rallies to weddings.

But by the late 1800s, steel became the construction material of choice, and the building of covered bridges virtually died out.

What had been lost was both an art and a science. Even with proven and patented truss designs, each bridge was a unique specimen of precision craftsmanship, not unlike, say, a quilt. Builders were folk engineers who worked without power tools or vehicles.

Their hand-cut, hand-shaped timbers and hand-pegged joints stand as a testament to the quality of their workmanship, as 21st-century vehicles roll over their floorboards.

All the bridges in Lancaster County except one are constructed using the Burr truss, patented by Theodore Burr in 1804. (The exception is the Landis Mill Covered Bridge, which has the king-post truss system.) Its wide, sweeping arcs are tied directly into the bridge's abutments and supported by numerous king posts. Because of this, the Burr truss can bridge rivers as wide as 200 feet.

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