Connecticut Covered Bridges
When musing on the quintessential covered bridge most people think of Vermont, but the earliest known covered bridge was built in 1804 by Massachusetts’ Timothy Palmer to span the Schuylkill River (PA).[i] In fact, a 1957 census of covered bridges (excluding footbridges) in the USA and Canada revealed that only 20% of remaining covered bridges were in New England.[ii] And still, this structure is part of the New England heart, a symbol of yesteryear and the skilled craftsmen who built them. Many covered bridges in Connecticut, and the rest of New England, have gone the way of horse and buggy, as modern travel requires wider bridges that can withstand greater loads. The romance of a kissing bridge, hidden from sight of watchful eyes, is superseded by need for safety and clear sight lines.
Why were the bridges covered? It was not to keep horses from being spooked, as that would require only high side walls. Nor was it to keep the snow off the bridge. In fact, towns had the expense of “snowing the bridges” – covering them with snow. Roads were not plowed and people often traveled by horse drawn sleigh in the winter. The covered bridges required a layer of snow to allow sleighs to pass.
Covered bridges addressed the issue of weather rotting the bridges. With sides and roof, the structural timbers were protected from the elements. Wood quickly rots when exposed to constant wetting and drying. It was easier and less expensive to replace the boarding than the structural elements of a bridge. Floods, freshets and ice jams, fire and age have led to the demise of many wooden bridges, as have current safety standards.
Connecticut’s biggest contribution to the legacy of timber bridges comes from the men who designed and built the bridges. Two common styles are named for the Connecticut men who designed them: Theodore Burr and Ithiel Town. Master bridge builders were more renowned for their work out of state, than in state. Jonathan Walcott, Colonel Ezra Brainerd, Zenas Whiting and Samuel Mack were the top names in timber bridge building.
Many covered bridges had side windows or openings or siding that did not reach all the way to the ceiling. Railroad covered bridges did require vents for the smoke. Connecticut once had many of the lesser-known boxed-in bridges, where sides and top all connected. Boxed-in bridges required windows and/or lamps to allow enough light to safely traverse the bridge. The Hartford Toll Bridge was extolled as an engineering marvel, with its windows and sky lights in the cupola allowing light and ventilation, and series of lamps that were tended each night. No less spectacular was the fire that destroyed the bridge.
In 1964, De Vito stated that Connecticut’s first covered bridge was not, as most believed, the 1818 Hartford Toll Bridge, but rather a toll bridge between Preston and Norwich. Records indicate that in 1813 a Norwich town committee was looking into whether to replace or repair the Chelsea Bridge, and they petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for a safer bridge to span the Shetucket River. The Norwich & Preston Bridge Company was granted the rights[iii] and covered toll bridge operated from 1817 to 1823[iv] when the March freshet carried it to the falls.[v]
In Connecticut’s Old Timbered Crossings[vi], Michael De Vito researched and inventoried the timbered crossings of Connecticut. De Vito lists each bridge, the town in which it is/was located and the river it spanned. When possible, the construction style, span length and materials are also listed. The introduction explains the different styles of boxed-in and covered bridges. A brief history of the crossing is given, including when and how the timbered bridge gave way to new bridges. Most entries include an illustration, and there is a map indicating the location of timbered crossings with a key to indicate which were still standing at time of publication (1964). As part of Images of America series, William S. Caswell, Jr. continued and expanded upon De Vito’s work in Connecticut and Rhode Island Covered Bridges.[vii]
[i] De Vito, Connecticut’s Old Timbered Crossings, 6.
[ii] Allen, Covered Bridges of the Northeast, 1.
[iii] Connecticut, Resolves and Private Acts of the State of Connecticut, I,280, 282.
[iv] De Vito, Connecticut’s Old Timbered Crossings, 7.
[v] Caswell, Connecticut and Rhode Island Covered Bridges, 7.
[vi] De Vito, Connecticut’s Old Timbered Crossings.
[vii] Caswell, Connecticut and Rhode Island Covered Bridges.