“Covered bridges were first built in the 1790s but did not become popular until after 1814.”
This passage has been repeated in relief on the historical markers adorning most of Kentucky’s covered bridges since 1968. The statement was made casually and without valediction in response to a question asked in a meeting to determine the verbiage of the first such marker to be erected at a Kentucky covered bridge. Before the information could be validated, it was taken as gospel and has been quoted as fact for more than fifty years. It is entirely unfactual.
Covered bridges long predate the settlement of the New World. Such timbered tunnels were built in Switzerland, Germany, and China as early as the 1200s. Numerous examples of these centuries-old spans still stand.
The earliest known documentation of a proposed covered bridge in the United States appeared in the Columbian Magazine of January, 1787. An unidentified draughtsman illustrated a design for a bridge over the Schuylkill at “High Street” (Market Street) in Philadelphia. His four span, 400-foot arched bridge was the first in the states known to be proposed with a roof and weatherboarding to protect the trusses. It was not built.
Neither built was the High Street Bridge of 1796 proposed by Charles Willson Peale, the artist who would be immortalized for his unfinished portrait of George Washington. Peale had been influenced by an uncovered bridge patent by Thomas Paine, the revolutionary and author of The Rights of Man, and, The Age of Reason. Though Peale was not a proponent of covering a bridge with roof and siding, his designs fostered desires to replace cumbersome ferries with permanent bridges.
The first covered bridge known to have been built in the early days of this country was at Philadelphia. Reasonable as it was the second most populous and, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan metropolis in this young country at the time. In 1804, Timothy Palmer, “Bridge Architect” from Newburyport, Mass., constructed his “permanent bridge” over the Schuylkill; the 550-foot, three-span bridge opening, though unfinished on Jan. 1, 1805. Over the next nine years at least 30 covered bridges are known to have been constructed in the 15 states, including one documented to 1810 in Kentucky. The credible number of covered bridges standing at that time is estimated to have more likely been between 100 and 200. Certainly the popularity of covered bridges was established prior to 1814.
WHY A ROOF
The question is often asked “why were bridges covered.” Many times the knowing response will be “It was so the horses wouldn’t be scared crossing the water” or “to protect the floor from snow.” It has been stated that it was so the bridge portal resembled a barn and cattle would more easily enter. Other popular reasons proffered include “to provide shade to the traveller on hot days.” These reasons are often validated by “my grandfather told me this and he was of that era so he would know.” If these were any of his responses, Grandfather did not know. When stated that bridges were covered to prevent horses or cattle from being spooked, it is rarely considered that iron truss bridges, which were not covered, began to appear in the 1860s, well before Dobbin was replaced by Dodge. Providing shade is not the responsibility of the county fiscal courts which were the usual bodies responsible for the constructions of covered bridges in the commonwealth. Protecting the floor from snow, though fallacious, is the closest to fact. Floors were easily replaced and were considered expendable – often snow was shoveled INTO a bridge to allow sleigh runners to easily pass. Bridges were covered simply for reasons of economy. An uncovered wood bridge, exposed to the weather – sun and heat in the summer and significant rains and snow which would cause swelling of the wood and loosening of the joints – will last, on average, 15-20 years. By adding the shelter of a roof and siding, these joints are protected from the weather and will remain in good condition with basic maintenance. This will increase the useful life of such a structure to an average of 40 years before major repairs are necessary.
The frontier of Kentucky County, Va., was traversed in its early days by pioneer paths which closely followed the buffalo traces. When the largest county of the Old Dominion was broken into Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties in 1780, little improvement to transportation infrastructure had occurred. Virginia road laws were based on early English road laws. Virginia passed significant road legislation in 1658, 1748, and 1785. The original 15 counties of the 15th state, including Mason, had expanded to 25 when the commonwealth passed its first road legislation in 1797. This codification closely paralleled those of its parent commonwealth and, of significance to the later fight for the Limestone Road Bill, maintenance of roads was legislatively decreed to localities as opposed to states.
As recorded in Collins History of Kentucky “an act of Virginia in 1785 … re-enacted by the legislature of Kentucky, February 25, 1797 – provided for the opening of new roads and the alteration of former roads by surveyors appointed by courts. … In the absence of bridges, mill dams were required to be built at least 12 feet wide for the passage of public roads with bridges over the pier head and flood gates. “
The early turnpikes were built using either the Telford or MacAdam methods. Both Telford and MacAdam were English engineers and had developed similar methods for building a lasting highway. Both roads were a base of stones overlaid with compacted crushed stones. The principal differences are that in the Telford method the base layer is stone blocks laid flat and a single layer of crushed rock provides the surface. MacAdam’s method placed fieldstone of 9-12-inch diameter on edge as a base layer and the surface was composed of two layers of crushed rock. Contemporaneous studies proved that for drainage either method was suitable though MacAdam’s roads became the more popular choice. Rights of way were originally 30 feet in width and later expanded to 50 feet with the stone surfaces being, typically, 16.5-20 feet in width.
The Maysville and Lexington Turnpike was originally chartered by the Kentucky Legislature Feb. 4, 1817 and re-chartered Jan. 22, 1827, after Gov. Joseph DeSha urged its construction in an address to the legislature on Dec. 4, 1826. It quickly took on national importance and the Limestone Road was proposed by Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay as an extension of the National Road from Zanesville, Ohio to New Orleans. Clay’s bill, if passed, would originally have authorized $150,000 in stock subscription for construction of the road. Kentucky Sen. John Rowan voted in favor of the bill while George M. Bibb voted against it. Sen. Daniel Webster then of Massachusetts and Sen. Josiah Stoddard Johnston of Louisiana were also significant in passage of the bill.
The importance of the Limestone Road was not lost on the citizens of the commonwealth. An interior route connecting its principal port of entry, Maysville with one of its wealthiest cities, Paris, to Lexington, then its largest city, and to the capital at Frankfort would provide easier transportation of goods and settlers. According to W.M. Perrin’s Kentucky. A History of the State , “the first macadamized road in the state was built from Maysville to Washington, a distance of 4 miles. By an act of the legislature, passed Feb. 4, 1817, a company was incorporated to build a turnpike road from Lexington to Louisville. And another to build one from Lexington to Maysville, and the capital stock of each company fixed at $350,000, in shares of $100 each. The road from Maysville to Lexington was to pass through Washington, May’s Lick, Millersburg, and Paris. During the next year turnpike roads were chartered from Louisville to Portland and Shippingport, from Lexington toward Boonesborough (sic), from Lexington to Georgetown and from Georgetown to Frankfort. In February, a road was chartered from Georgetown to Cincinnati. But, with all this legislation on the subject it was not until 1829, that a macadamized road was built in the State.”
The Limestone Road was complete to Lexington but its extension as the southern leg of The National Road never materialized. Most attribute this to President Andrew Jackson’s hatred of Clay. Jackson vetoed the bill on May 27, 1831, citing that “federal funding of intrastate projects was unconstitutional.”
“Turnpike” was the name given originally to the pike which served as the gate at a tollhouse. The roads they served came to be known as this giving to the lexicon “pike” as a synonym for road. The tolls paid were to be used for maintenance of these thoroughfares and typically, the toll keeper was paid from what was left. Not uncommon, the roads were not well maintained and were often the cause of ire for those who used them frequently. In Kentucky, payment of toll was usually for passage of 5 miles on the road. It has been often stated that certain covered bridges were toll bridges: Dover, and Sherburne have been attributed as such. With but one known exception, the covered bridges in Kentucky were not, in and of themselves, toll bridges. While the roads were built by private subscription, the bridges were, in most cases, built by the county and did not require separate toll. It was not uncommon for tollhouses to be near or next to a bridge and this is the origin of their misnomers as “toll bridges.”
While some 300-400 covered bridges are reasonably estimated to have remained in Kentucky at the beginning of the Jazz Age, legislative designation of former turnpikes across the commonwealth, including the Maysville Road, as state highways (and made a federal highway, U.S. 68, in 1926) led directly to these numbers diminishing to 44 in 1952.
Beginning in 1925, a program of refurbishment began on the covered bridges on state and federal highways in the commonwealth, known as the “Red Lines.” The Red Lines were the major highways throughout the state illustrated in red on early Highway Department maps. Typically, though initially in not all instances, siding was removed from the covered bridges and the trusses were painted white. The theory behind this program was that by removing the siding from a bridge, the load limit could be increased by an amount equal to the weight of the siding less the weight of paint. The lessons of history were never learned as paint in 1926 provided no more protection to the all-important joints of an uncovered bridge than it did in 1826. Accurate to precedent, these denuded bridges began to fail and be replaced by the mid-1930s. Mason County’s Lewisburg Bridge survived until 1940; Helena – Wedonia until 1947. The last surviving Kentucky covered bridge to receive this re-engineering, at Sanders on the Carroll – Owen County line, was destroyed by arson in August, 1948.
Turnpikes were a matter of great pride in their early days as they were evidence of progress. By the late 1800s they had become a source of great derision among the masses. Lack of maintenance, expansion, and excessive tolls brought outrage among many who used them regularly. Turnpike Raiders were vigilantes who sought to free the pikes through arson or violence. Three covered bridges; two over Benson Creek and one over Armstrong’s Branch in Franklin County were burned by these “Night Riders” in 1896. There were others. Tollhouses were also common targets and in at least one instance the toll keeper is known to have been flogged. By the early 1900s the roads were made public.
It was the foresight of Mason County to construct the first highway in Kentucky which led, ultimately, to the constructions of more than 700 covered bridges across the commonwealth.