Living history

A caravan of vehicles wound its way along backroads through the hills and hollows of Washington County Sunday as members of the Ohio Historic Bridge Association conducted a group of 20 people on a spring tour of six covered bridges in the western part of the county.

At least one stop on the tour, at the Shinn Covered Bridge over the West Branch of Little Hocking River on Shinn Road in Palmer Township, brought back some cherished memories for Judy Lantrip, 68, of Little Hocking.

“I was raised on a dairy farm about two miles from the bridge, and our school bus would cross the Shinn bridge every day,” she said. “But in the late 1950s there must have been some kind of a new law because the bus couldn’t cross the bridge with any kids on board. So the bus driver would stop and we kids would get out and run across the covered bridge. Then he would cross and pick us up on the other side.”

Since those days the Shinn Covered Bridge has been reinforced and local traffic regularly crosses the 98-foot-long wooden span.

OHBA tour leader Doug Miller, noted the Shinn bridge was originally built in 1886 by E.B. Henderson and was renovated in 1998.

“The bridge was built as a direct result of a near drowning after the Shinn family had crossed the creek in a rowboat and their 3-year-old daughter fell in to the water, but was saved by her older brother,” Miller said.

He noted a similar story initiated construction of the Henry (Goddard) Covered Bridge over the West Branch of the Hocking River along Clark Road in Fairfield Township.

“This bridge was built in 1894, also by E.B. Henderson, as a result of a small child who slipped off an unstable footbridge and drowned in the flood-swollen creek,” Miller said.

David Simmons, president of the OHBA, and editor of the Ohio Historical Society’s Timeline magazine, said it wasn’t unusual for bridges to be built in response to outcries from the local community.

“The public officials of that time, like officials today, often responded to such requests when they heard from area residents,” he said.

Most of Ohio’s covered bridges, including those in Washington County, were built in the 1870s and 1880s, Simmons said, noting that the increased use of roadways for troop movement during the Civil War highlighted the need for better-engineered bridges across the state’s rivers and streams.

He said the spans were generally constructed of white oak which is a much denser wood and therefore more “waterproof” than red oak.

“And wood is still a very good material for bridge building today,” Simmons said. “The salt used on roadways destroys concrete and asphalt, but wood is actually preserved by salt. And wood floats.”

He noted in the past when massive floods washed a covered bridge off its piers, the bridge could simply be located floating downstream, hauled out of the water and re-set on the stone abutments.

Simmons said wooden bridges are long-lasting, and there are engineers today looking at building new spans out of wood.

“We’ll probably be seeing more wooden bridges constructed,” he said. “And there are already several new covered bridges being built in the northern area of the state.”

Miller said a former Ashtabula County engineer, John Smolen, has restored some covered bridges there , and has built new covered bridges on some two-lane roadways in that area of the state.

Simmons said there is a lot of lore about why covered bridges are “covered.” He said some people say the spans had to be covered because horses fear crossing streams on an “open” bridge. Others believed the covering was to protect the bridge during storms because nails in the span could draw lightning.

“But the idea of building a roof over the bridge was simply to protect the wooden bridge which makes it last longer,” he said.

Other Washington County covered bridges visited during Sunday’s tour included the Harra Covered Bridge, built in 1878 over the South Branch of Wolf Creek along Camp Hervida Road in Watertown Township; Root Covered Bridge over the West Branch of the Little Hocking on Burnett Road in Fairfield Township, also built in 1878; Mill Branch Covered Bridge, built in 1871, now located at the Barlow Fairgrounds in Barlow Township; and the Bell Covered Bridge on Bell Road, built in 1888 over the Southwest Fork of Wolf Creek in Barlow Township.

The group also visited the 1857 Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad piers, also known as the Dunbar Piers on Walsh Road in Fairfield Township, and the Harmar Railroad Bridge over the Muskingum River in Marietta, located near the site of the former Cory’s Bridge which could have been the first bridge built in Ohio, according to Jean Yost, local historian and a member of the OHBA.

Among those taking the covered bridge tour Sunday was Judy Calvert, who recently moved to Marietta from Tucson, Ariz.

“I’m just trying to get to know the area and I’m really interested in history,” she said. “And I love the outdoors, so this tour is great.”