Pennsylvania. The land of bridges. If you read my last post about the different kinds of maps, then you’ll know about topographical maps. If not, then the briefest definition of topography is the “detailed description or representation on a map of the natural and artificial features of an area” and is used mostly in the study of geography. But if you’re familiar with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania at all, you’ll know that it’s a vast region of varied land formations from the Poconos of mid state to the low levels near Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh, located in South Western PA, is known as the City of Bridges. While they’re mostly of steel construction (another nickname of the city being the Steel City…more on that at another time), most of the covered bridges were in rural areas, used for trains or normal walking paths and roads. These days, not many of them survive but there are many covered bridge festivals throughout the year, most of them taking place in our gorgeous fall season.
Can you tell that I am a Pennsylvanian?
Washington County. Green County. Columbia County. Montour County. These are just a few of the places in the Commonwealth that celebrate this important structure.
**These condensed histories brought to you by “Images of America: Pennsylvania’s Covered Bridges” by Fred J. Moll, along with other online sources that will be cited.**
The Covered Bridges of Pennsylvania
A Condensed History
The first covered bridge in the New World was built in 1805 over the Schuylkill River along one of the main routes out of the city of Philadelphia. Many of them were built over such rivers and needed to be tall enough for barges and other water traffic to travel under. Larger covered bridges even required the traveler to pay a toll to cross it for general maintenance or to offset the cost of building the bridge. Often there would be a general store or post office built next to it.
Sadly, this isn’t the Brandywine on the way to Hobbiton in “The Lord of the Rings.” Pennsylvania isn’t that special! To Brandywine: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJUryaDzt9c
The earliest covered bridges were built in Philadelphia with the trend continuing westward, encouraging travel between rural communities and cities. Some were constructed out of stone and could support heavy loads of material goods. However, most were smaller, wooden structures used mostly for foot and vehicular traffic. Because of this aspect, many bridges also had advertisements from shops and companies showcasing services or products, and many were commissioned by companies or other entrepreneurs.
Sadly, not many survive today but those that have are celebrated for their contributions to the communities they serviced. These days, a bridge is seen as a common, basic thing. In America’s earliest centuries, if there wasn’t a bridge, you just didn’t go that way until one was built or you built it yourself.
Covered Bridges in Modern PA…so to speak
As time moved forward covered bridge construction soon became a thing of the past, morphing into the more modern, steel trussed bridges we see today. Iron and steel were Pittsburgh’s main export for many years, so it was easy for engineers to use the materials throughout Pennsylvania for bridges of all sorts, railroads, ships, and tunnels through mountains. That doesn’t mean that by the 19th century, covered bridges fell into complete obscurity. In fact, their charm and usefulness encouraged many living near them to invest in their upkeep and future use.
Covered bridges were still being used well into the 1930s, such as the Wertz’s Mill Covered Bridge off Route 222 North of Reading, PA. The Davis Covered Bridge, built in 1875, has modern paving inside, as well as the Hollingshead Mill Covered Bridge near Catawissa in Columbia County and the Stillwater Covered Bridge, also in Columbia County. Many of the surviving bridges have either been modernized to accommodate 21st century vehicles or restored using similar materials that would’ve been used at the time of construction for historical preservation.
Train and Trolley Use
Unfortunately, none of these types of covered bridges survived the passage of time in Pennsylvania. Otherwise, as a child of a family fascinated by trains and trolleys, we would’ve most definitely have made a journey to visit at least one of them by now. My grandfather, Louis J. Redman of Pittsburgh, PA, played a role in starting the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in 1949. He was also a founding member of the Train Collectors Association (TCA) a few years later in 1954. Being born in 1916, he most definitely would’ve seen and used these bridges.
There really isn’t much change between the history of these bridges versus what’s already been discussed, but of course they had to be constructed a bit differently to support the weight of steam engines, its cargo, and house the necessary wires for trolley traffic. On September 30th, 1896, the Columbia-Wrightsville Covered Bridge was destroyed by a category 1 hurricane. I mention this one because it was, uniquely, a rail and road traffic covered bridge. The Pennsylvania Railroad took the width of the river and bay into consideration when they constructed it, but it was later replaced, as many were, by an iron bridge.
Well, that wasn’t the most colorful of histories and maybe not the most interesting, but without bridges in general, we may not have seen as much engineering growth that the Industrial Revolution was built upon. Many working parts had to happen, and advancement in travel only pushed that Revolution in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to another level.
Because, let’s face it. Covered bridges are not only practical, but magical.