Heritage, engineering of Maine’s covered bridges continue to impress
By DOUGLAS ROOKS
Everett Barnard has no hesitation when asked what draws people, again and again to Maine’s historic covered bridges.
“It’s our heritage,” he said of the reminders of the earliest days of highway and bridge construction in the state. “It’s what people want to remember about our past, and to relive when they can.” That, and, the fact that the early covered bridges were being built by craftsmen who spent most their time raising barns and other post-and-beam structures, are remarkable example of intuitive engineering — lasting achievements from the days before structural engineering became a science.
“It goes right back to our beginnings as a state,” he said. “These were local craftsmen who also became inventors, who through trial and error found the best way to span streams and create commerce.”
Barnard has lived with and worked on covered bridges more than most. He went to work for what is now the Department of Transportation in 1959, joining the bridge division in 1961 and the maintenance section in 1966. He was appointed bridge maintenance engineer in 1981, a position he held until his retirement in 2003. When people want to know about the workings of covered bridges in Maine, they still call Barnard, who lives in Augusta. Maine has nine covered bridges maintained by MaineDOT, including two replicas, a much smaller number than other New England states. New Hampshire has 60 remaining covered bridges and Vermont nearly 100. The largest number of covered bridges in any state is in Pennsylvania, which has more than 200. In all, well over 1,000 covered bridges were built in New England, and about 150 in Maine, according to Joseph Conwill, who is recognized as the expert on covered bridges. His book on the subject, Covered Bridges Across North America is still available on-line. The author, who lives in Rangeley, claims to have visited every covered bridge in the U.S. and Canada that existed in 1966.
An endangered species
Barnard says he believes that number is about right “as long as you realize that not all of those bridges were in existence at the same time.” Even in the early days, wooden bridges had a high mortality rate. Fire, flood and occasional unsuccessful designs all took their toll. By the turn of the 20th century, there were about 125 covered bridges in Maine, and by 1924-25 — when the state did a complete inventory of all its bridges — there were just 65. The modern era of concrete and steel construction was in full swing, and wooden bridges of all types were replaced rapidly by spans that could carry much greater loads and required far less maintenance.
By 1959, there were just 10 covered bridges remaining on the state’s roster. The last covered bridge to be deliberately removed was the bridge over the Little Black River, a tributary of the Allagash in far northern Maine. That bridge was replaced with a “modern” span in 1956. One of Maine’s 10 remaining covered bridges, the Morse Bridge in Bangor, was the only one lying within city limits. It was decommissioned in 1961 and moved to a site downstream because the city fathers wanted to preserve it. But its end was a sad one. The state highway commissioner was not enthusiastic about the relocation, as Everett Barnard remembers it, and the site — in an out-of-the-way park below a shopping center — was a poor one.
The bridge was torched by vandals in 1983 and not rebuilt. That fate – destruction by fire – was also visited upon Babb’s Bridge, which spans the Presumpscot River between Gorham and Windham, in 1973. But in 1976, DOT undertook construction of an exact replica, using local woodwrights who understood the bridge construction techniques.
By the late 1940s, the tide had begun to turn from replacement to preservation. Covered bridges had a friend at the State Highway Commission, a predecessor of Barnard’s named Roy Wentzel, who took the job in the 1940s. “They were tearing them down pretty fast,” said Barnard. In 1947, Wentzel saw to it that the remaining covered bridges fell under the Highway Commission’s jurisdiction. “He favored covered bridges,” Barnard said of Wentzel. “I think he admired how they were built.” Wentzel wasn’t alone. In 1959, the Legislature passed a bill to protect all remaining covered bridges, and put the Highway Commission in charge of doing so. It was the first of several such measures, the most recent in 1985 that, along with help from a new federal bridge preservation program, set off more reconstruction efforts. The 1985 statute requires MaineDOT to protect and maintain all covered bridges of “unique design,” and that includes each one of the nine. The result is that “all our covered bridges are in pretty good shape,” Barnard said. “We’ve done a good job keeping up in that area.”
Having so few bridges relative to its northern New England neighbors may in fact be a blessing in disguise. Since there are only nine that need maintenance, Maine can devote more attention to each, Barnard points out.
Barring catastrophe, the state isn’t likely to lose any more of these landmarks. A lengthy tour It’s hard to take a tour of the nine bridges, since they are so widely scattered around the state, lying as far north as Littleton (Watson Settlement) and as far south as Fryeburg (Hemlock). If you do want to look, however, five of the bridges are clustered in Oxford County: Hemlock, Artist’s, Lovejoy and Bennett, while a fifth, the Porter Bridge, lies on the York-Oxford County border. The others are Babb’s (Cumberland County), Lowe’s (Piscataquis), Robyville (Penobscot) and Watson Settlement (Aroostook).
The last-named bridge illustrates just how little is known about some of these bridges — Watson Settlement has vanished from the maps, and few seem to know where it might have been. Asked about his favorite among the nine bridges, Barnard demurs. He allows that Artist’s Bridge over the Sunday River in Newry is always cited as the most photographed and painted. It has a picturesque and unusual latticework structure on its sides, and lies in a vale between mountains that is, well, an unforgettable sight. And those who grew up in the greater Bethel area often remember the bridge as a spot that recalls the 19th century appellation of “kissing bridge” – along with other youthful activities. For year rounders as well as visitors, it’s a good place to get away from it all.
There’s no question that each Maine covered bridge is unique. The surviving bridges were built between 1857 (Hemlock) and 1911 (Watson Settlement) that were indeed the boom times for wooden bridges in New England. While Maine stopped building covered structures by the 1920s, the technique remained in use across the international border in New Brunswick until much later. The last new covered bridge there, according to a paper by Joseph Conwill, was put up in 1958. Oregon was another place where covered bridges remained in vogue into the 1950s.
The earliest recorded covered bridge in Maine was built a year before statehood, in 1819, appropriately enough in Augusta, the soon-to-be state capital. It figures on several early prints of the city as a prominent landmark until it, like other early bridges, was washed out in a spring freshet. The Augusta bridge, though, wasn’t the longest covered bridge in the state. That title may belong to a bridge across the Penobscot River from Bangor to Brewer that was 792 feet, using multiple spans, built in 1846 at a then-sizeable cost of $60,000.
A 600-foot-long covered bridge across the Kennebec at Norridgewock was another impressive structure, and its successors show the staying power of the covered bridge image.
The idiosyncratic 1928 replacement, whose concrete superstructure in some ways mimics the earlier construction, is also known as “the covered bridge,” and even as MaineDOT now plans its replacement, sometime in the next decade, that project too is known as “the covered bridge.”
The historian Conwill has high praise for the builders of these bridges. In his lecture, “Who Built the Covered Bridges? The Social Organization of Building,” he says: “The legendary covered bridge builder is a folk figure like the old-time lumberjack, or the tall ship sailor. We know the image: self-taught, a farmer in the summer and a bridge-builder in the winter, he may or may not have been able to read and write. But he was capable of building sturdy bridges, which has lasted in service over a century.” Conwill concludes that the reality “sometimes” matches this romantic image.
Within a few decades, New England was employing several full-time bridge designers and builders. In this region, towns were the primary employers of bridge builders, and expenses were often figured down to the penny. The Lovejoy Bridge, for instance, commissioned by Andover, is recorded in town records as being built of square-sawn spruce and costing exactly $743.47. The Porter- Parsonfield Bridge was an early example of regional cooperation, with the two towns splitting the cost.
The trusses of covered bridges were the innovative parts of their designs, and some of these inventions were patented. The most popular design here was the Paddleford truss, itself a modified version of the Long truss (the names usually referred to the inventor). In all, the remaining Maine covered bridges have five Paddleford designs, two of the Long variety, and two using a Howe truss.
Most of the later bridges use laminated beams, often of impressive size and length, to increase strength and flexibility. That was an important factor for increasing agricultural loads that used the bridges. That feature also recalls much more contemporary bridge-building, such as the advanced woodand- polymer laminated designs pioneered by the University of Maine’s composites research and development facility.
Rebuilding the modern way
In 1987, another covered bridge fell — Lowe’s Bridge on the Piscataquis River, washed away in the “100 year flood” that April. (The flood focused national news coverage on the Kennebec basin downstream, including pictures of canoes navigating Water Street in Hallowell and Gardiner.) This time, MaineDOT tried a different method, building a “modern covered bridge,” as Barnard puts it, employing some of the improved load-bearing designs of the 20th century. It looks much like the old bridge, but stands several feet higher to avoid another washout sometime later in the 21st century.
There’s considerable debate about how to preserve and maintain covered bridges long after the original builders believed they would last. Some preservationists resist any structural changes at all, but replicating some of the original features is expensive and highly labor-intensive. Barnard prefers that covered bridges not be bypassed (as was done in Newry, Porter and Littleton, for instance) but remain open for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic; five of the Maine bridges are, including the two replicas. That can be accomplished, he said, by adding steel I-beams below the main bearing surfaces. “The purists don’t like it, but on most bridges you can hardly see them. It makes them safe and durable, and you can keep using them for decades to come,” he said.
More than postcards
There’s no doubt that covered bridges have more than picture-postcard appeal. Natives and residents appreciate them just as much, and their feelings are reflected in Maine law that, as much as any law can, ensures that they will remain in existence permanently. The allure of covered bridges is such that people keep building them even where there is no need for transportation. A website devoted to all covered bridges, and not just state-maintained ones, depicts a fairly saggy-looking 25-foot span in Trenton. More robust bridges were built at the Cole Museum in Bangor in 1994 and at the Big Adventure attraction in 1999. The most recent addition is a 50-foot pedestrian covered bridge, part of the Bethel town trail system, built in 2001. Barnard likes all the bridges that survive, but misses some of those that are gone.
“There were double-barreled bridges,” such as the Stillwater Bridge near Orono, the last Town lattice truss bridge in the U.S., removed in 1951. “There were bridges with sidewalks on the outside, railroad bridges, bridges with all kinds of unusual siding. You would like to have seen them all,” he said.
He’d also like to see more attention paid to this aspect of Maine history, and believes that, while bridge technology marches on, maintaining Maine’s historic covered bridges is well worth the investment. “They’re really almost like a piece of furniture, like a well-built work of art. Not one of them has exactly the same design, and that’s why they’re all special.”
Douglas Rooks writes, edits and consults for numerous publications and non-profit organizations.