Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

We crossed the Susquehanna river by a wooden bridge, roofed and covered in on all sides, and nearly a mile in length. It was profoundly dark, perplexed with great beams, crossing and recrossing at every possible angle, and through the broad chinks and crevices in the floor the rapid river gleamed far down below like a legion of eyes. We had no lamps, and as the horses stumbled and floundered through the place towards the distant speck of dying light it seemed interminable. I really could not at first persuade myself, as we rumbled heavily on filling the bridge with hollow noises, and as I held down my head to save it from the rafters above, that I was not in a painful dream, for I have often dreamed of toiling through such places and as often argued, even at the time, ‘this cannot be reality.’

Charles Dickens, American Notes


Covered Bridge. Today, mere mention of this rustic – indeed, anachronistic­ – wooden sided and roofed span evokes a reverence from a highly mobile and technologi­cal society which customarily depends, more often than not, on complex systems of broad interstates, sweeping by­passes and expansive express­ways. To generations today, the covered bridge is largely a symbol, often romantic and nostalgic, but in 226 places in Pennsylvania it is, by good for­tune, a reality. And to many, the beamed and enclosed trusses evoke a feeling, an unbridled sentimentality, for a time when America seemed more rural, more gentle and, perhaps, much more innocent.

The covered bridge, despite the romanticism ascribed to it, was a transportation marvel of the early nineteenth century in the United States. Although Czechoslovakia and Switzer­land claim the oldest covered bridges still in existence in the world – dating from the thir­teenth to the fifteenth centu­ries – Pennsylvania played a major role in their develop­ment. Folklore contends that covered bridges were primarily constructed to prevent carriage and wagon horses from being frightened while crossing riv­ers and streams. In reality, however, horses were probably more frightened by these long and narrow, dark and echoing tunnels than by the rushing water they had previously crossed at fords. The real rea­son – given man’s bent for technological and engineering advancement – was plainly practical.

Wooden bridges, whether supported by immense logs or hand-hewn supports, were subject to penetrating dampness which eventually rotted the boards and timbers. Since wood was the most abundant, easily accessible and workable raw material available, eight­eenth and nineteenth century builders and carpenters con­tinued using the felled oaks, hickories, walnuts and fruit­woods. But it was a master carpenter from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who actually solved the nagging problem of rotting wooden bridges.

Timothy Palmer in 1801 con­structed the first covered bridge in the United States over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Soon bridge engineers throughout the country, including renowned builders and inventors Theo­dore Burr, Ithel Town and Wil­liam Howe, carried wood’s usefulness and efficiency to new, unprecedented heights. Although the most pictur­esque quality of the covered bridge is its rustic siding, the most important component was its interior trussing system.

The trussing of a bridge is an intricate network of con­struction and bracing which not only supports the struc­ture itself, but helps carry the loads crossing the bridge. Numerous techniques were developed and adapted in per­fecting these complicated – yet reliable – trussing systems but, ironically, the diverse variety in form and structure is absent in modern iron, steel and concrete spans. The simplest trussing system, the Kingpost, was basically a triangle with reinforcing timbers. The Queenpost used a truncated triangle supported by posts at each end which enabled con­struction of much longer bridges. Thirty-four Kingpost truss bridges still exist in the Commonwealth to this day. The shortest Kingpost truss bridges, measuring only twenty-four feet in length, are Krepp’s Bridge and Devil’s Den Bridge, both owned and maintained by Washington County. The longest Kingpost truss bridge, Erie County’s Carman Bridge, depends on several trusses for a total length of seventy-five feet!

Theodore Burr, a Tor­ringford, Connecticut, engi­neer, patented a wooden span trussing system in 1804. Known as the Burr arch truss, the plan combined great rein­forced arches with multiple Kingpost trusses. These arches, tied directly into the bridge abutments, permitted the crossing of wide streams and rivers. Most Burr arch truss covered bridges are one hundred feet or more in length. Many of Burr’s prototypes were constructed and tested throughout Pennsyl­vania; in fact, 127 still remain. These bridges are most preva­lent in the Susquehanna River watershed, probably due to the influence of Theodore Burr himself. He built some of his earliest and largest bridges in this area.

Patented trusses by early American builders are extant in Pennsylvania, including the Town truss, known also as the lattice truss, designed by Ithel Town of New Haven, Connect­icut, in 1820. The Town truss proved so strong and easy to erect that it was later adapted for railroad bridges of wood and cast iron. The Town truss enjoyed scattered popularity in the state, although it was extensively used in Bucks County. Other early spans, which Pennsylvania still claims as engineering triumphs and popular visitors attractions, include the Howe truss, pat­ented by Massachusetts’s Wil­liam Howe in 1840; the Warren truss, designed by two Englishmen, James Warren and T. W. Morzani in 1838; and the Smith truss, conceived and patented by Robert J. Smith of Ohio. Of numerous examples constructed in the nineteenth century, only four Howe-truss covered bridges, three Warren trusses and one Smith truss bridge still stand.

In addition to their techno­logical significance, covered bridges played important roles in military history.

Gen. Robert E. Lee and his troops thundered across Sauch’s Bridge, crossing March Creek in Adams County, during the night of July 3, 1863, as they hastily retreated from the battlefield at nearby Gettysburg following the defeat of Pickett’s Charge. The bridge was also used by Union troops during the Get­tysburg Campaign. Sauch’s Bridge was on the route used by Rowley’s Division of the Union First Corps, the bri­gades of Biddle and Stone and Cooper’s Battery. Owned by the county, the 100-foot long span was built in 1854.

The original names of cov­ered bridges witness local and regional folklore, politics, first settlers and geography. They were often christened for an area dignitary, the farmer on whose land the bridge stood, a nearby grist mill or a descrip­tive element of the bridge itself. Some of the more unusually tagged covered bridges still standing include Jack’s Mountain Bridge, Adams County; the Rudolph and Arthur Bridge, Chester County; the Y Bridge of Columbia County; Kaufman’s Distillery Bridge, Lancaster County; the Packsaddle Bridge of Somerset County; and Bedford County’s Dr. Knisley and Snooks bridges. The Commonwealth’s most pictur­esque bridges are the Gud­geonville Bridge, built in 1868 by William Sherman in Erie County, and Lancaster Coun­ty’s Red Run and White Rock Forge bridges, both Burr truss types.

Despite their contributions to engineering and local his­tory, covered bridges remain popular attractions because of their interesting exteriors. Early designers and builders deliberately made attempts to make the structures as attrac­tive and inviting as possible. Generally, design met function and the bridges were con­structed long and low in order to span a gap efficiently. The bridges’ silhouette and archi­tectural style echoed the most prevalent rural structure of the period – the barn. As deco­rated and decorative as they seemed, covered bridges­ – with varying portal shapes and different siding mate­rials – were erected with practi­cality in mind. Every covered bridge in Pennsylvania, for example, was capped by a gable roof to direct water and snow away from the structure.

Perhaps modern America’s most serious misconception regarding these venerable spans concerns their color. Today they are customarily painted red or white, the most common barn colors. During the nineteenth century, paint was an expensive commodity and red was the only color a farmer could make himself, using linseed oil and red oxide of iron. Often, covered bridges, as well as barns and roadside grist mills, served as billboards during the last cen­tury. It was not unusual for the spans to be plastered with advertisements or religious messages, much like the ubiq­uitous Mail Pouch tobacco barn paintings which contin­ued popular well into the twentieth century.

Even though the covered bridge is coveted for its quaint­ness, its historical importance or its picturesque qualities, it is, nonetheless, a vanishing landmark. Historians estimate that at one time, more than fif­teen hundred covered bridges served nineteenth century travelers in Pennsylvania; today only thirty-six of the Commonwealth’s sixty-seven counties can boast examples of this century old phenomenon. Prior to the devastation wreaked by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, 271 covered bridges offered yeomen ser­vice, but a little more than a decade later, several dozen have disappeared. Although most were victims of the rav­aging flood waters, several have given way to arson and, ironically, progress itself. Losses of covered bridges dur­ing the last century may have been great, but Pennsylvania still counts the greatest num­ber. And now it’s time to not only preserve these vestiges of an era long past for their “old­-fashioned” charm or as speci­mens of a developing trans­portation system, but as reminders that, yes, life was much simpler and gentler in the golden age of handcraft.


Residents and visitors may re-discover the beauty of the covered bridge this autumn during festivities coinciding with Pennsylvania’s fabled flaming foliage. One of the.most popular of these observances is “Covered Bridge Festival ’85,” hosted by the Washington­Greene County Tourist Promo­tion Agency and scheduled for the weekend of September 21-22 [1985]. The fifteenth annual event celebrates the thirty-two historic spans in the south­western counties, ranking the region first in the state and second in the nation with the number of surviving bridges. To obtain additional festival information, write: Washington­Greene County Tourist Pro­motion Agency, P.O. Box 877, Washington, PA 15301; or telephone (412) 222-8130.

Persons unable to attend regional festivals may be interested to know that an organization has been specifi­cally established for the cov­ered bridge enthusiast. Founded in 1958, the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Penn­sylvania (TBCBSP) is open to individuals interested in all types of roofed spans, and offers members a quarterly newsletter, an annual dinner and monthly meetings (ex­cept in August). Individual membership is five dollars. For more information, write: Roger Small, President, TBCBSP, 1121 Colonial Rd., Lancaster, PA 17603.


For Further Reading

Allen, Richard Sanders. Covered Bridges of the Middle Atlantic States. Brattleboro, Vt.: Stephen Greene Press, 1959.

James, Arthur E. Covered Bridges of Chester County, Pennsylvania. West Chester: Chester County Historical Society, 1976.

Lane, Oscar F., ed. World Guide to Covered Bridges. South Peabody, Mass.: The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, Inc., 1972.

Smith, Elmer L. Covered Bridges of Pennsylvania Dutchland. Akron, Pa.: Applied Arts Publishers, 1960.

Zacher, Susan M. The Covered Bridges of Pennsylvania: A Guide. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion, 1982.


Susan M. Zacher is author of The Covered Bridges of Pennsyl­vania: A Guide, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1982. She joined the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation in 1977 and has served as coordinator of the National Register program in Pennsylvania. Her work with the Commonwealth’s historic site survey led to her interest in covered bridges.