Covered bridges of Mason County: Here a bridge, there a bridge

Robert W.M. Laughlin
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Aside from the early mill dam at the old buffalo crossing, the earliest mention of a permanent structured crossing in Mason County is in the journal of Fortescue Cuming published in 1810. Cuming chronicled his “Tour of the Western Country;” his journey from Ohio, through Mississippi and to west Florida between 1807 and 1809. In writing of his time passing though Kentucky, he encountered a wood bridge “some 230’ in length” across North Fork downstream of the present crossing of US 68. The likelihood of this bridge having been covered is remote and an open wood bridge was almost certainly in place. The necessity of constructing a new crossing in the 1830s illustrates this.

CONSTRUCTION MYTHS AND METHODS

A long-standing myth is that the Butler Bridge in Pendleton County over the Licking River was the longest covered bridge in the world (or the United States depending upon the source). The 456’ bridge which stood from 1871 until October, 1937 was at no point in its existence the longest covered bridge anywhere BUT Kentucky.

It often has been stated that many covered bridges were built using only “wooden pegs” to connect the timbers. In Kentucky, this method of construction has been attributed to such long-gone bridges as Cynthiana, Camp Nelson, Butler, and others. Even extant Switzer in Franklin County has been reported to have been constructed without nails. Nothing is further from the truth. Typically, Town lattice trusses are connected at their points of intersection with treenails. Treenails are wood pins, often Hickory, which are soaked in linseed oil, and pronounced “trunnels.” The only Town lattice truss remaining in Kentucky is the Goddard Bridge in Fleming County. Most wood trusses in even the earliest days of covered bridge construction were connected with iron bolts and tension, compression, or combination “keys” formed of wood. Nails and spikes were liberally used. A late era exception was Col. Stephen H. Long’s 1847 patent truss. The composite tension members were spiked with treenails. Interestingly, this sturdy truss appears to have been used only in Kentucky – the last example to stand, at the Garrard – Lincoln County line, burned in June, 1955.

In Mason County, only a single bridge is confirmed to have been built from Ithiel Town’s patented lattice design.

MASON COUNTY COVERED BRIDGES

Remembrances of recollections often place covered bridges where, in fact, none stood. Long thought to have once been covered bridges, recent research has determined that the first bridges at Taylor’s Mill near Orangeburg and on Cliff Pike near Lewisburg were built of iron. Though rumored, it is still unclear if the through truss built in 1896 on Davis Lane over the North Fork replaced a covered bridge.

The discovery that a covered bridge once existed over Phillips Creek on Bridgeport Road, within sight of the Lewis County line, is a very recent one. Only two documented mentions, and no photographs are known. Both are from the Maysville Public Ledger in July, 1917 and detail the span as a stalwart structure: it having withstood impact from a large maple tree uprooted in a flash flood the night of July 3rd. A week later local journalists were still marveling at the strength of the old span and reporting it had been built by John Parker and Matt Stubblefield in 1870 or ’71. The stone abutments were reported to have been constructed by George Fulkner (sic) of Flemingsburg.

Floods have many times plagued Mason County though the covered bridges appear to have, more often than not, won the battles. An exception was the then newly built bridge over the south fork of Lawrence Creek on the Ripley Ferry Pike near Moransburg. Completed by the Bower Bridge Company in November, 1883; February, 1884 saw the multiple kingpost truss endangered by high water which destroyed numerous iron bridges and culverts in the county. Despite Bower “loading 42,000 Lbs. of iron and rock” on the bridge to weigh it down, it was lost to the onslaught. He was then contracted in March, 1884 to rebuild the bridge. Denuded of its vertical siding in the 1920s and not given even the cursory protection of paint, the 60’ span remained standing into the 1940s. In the 1930s, a rerouting of the road, also known as Anderson Ferry Pike for the name of the ferry at Ripley, and originally as the Blue Run and Dover Turnpike, left the old span as an alternate, upstream, crossing. The 160 perch of irregular stone (roughly 16,000 cubic feet) used in the abutments and built in eight days, still stand at the site.

No stranger to flood was the Limestone Bridge carrying the disjunct ends of Second Street, by way of Bridge Street; perhaps the first bridge in Mason County. It carried east and westbound travellers over Limestone Creek at the eastern liberties of the original footprint of Maysville. Though it is unclear if a covered bridge ever stood at the site, the likelihood is greater than not given the age and importance of the crossing. On two occasions iron bridges here were lost to high water: a two-year-old span in 1882, and its replacement in 1884. At least three other floods damaged the abutments necessitating repair or rebuilding. The alignment of the original bridge is today marked by the water main over Limestone nearly parallel to the concrete bridge.

Continuing east from the Limestone Bridge then turning south from Stores toward Rectorville, a covered bridge once stood over Bull Fork. A fence rail concrete bridge, a style which fell out of common use in the 1930s and itself endangered to disappear marks the site.

Mention is made in the Maysville Dollar Weekly Bulletin in 1864 of the construction ten years prior of the tollhouse on the Tuckahoe Ridge Turnpike “near the covered bridge.” Reported in the Maysville Weekly Bulletin May 24, 1883, a new bridge was “lately built” at the crossing. The old turnpike from Dover to Maysville was realigned as KY 8 in the 1960s. The site of the bridge over Lawrence Creek north of Moransburg was abandoned, now accessible only by foot.

A request for bids ran for several weeks in the Evening Bulletin beginning September, 1883. The proposal was for a “148’ bridge [of] wood or iron over North Fork on the Mt. Olivet, Wolf Run, and Two Lick Turnpike.” The only known image of this bridge, at the Robertson County line just south of Tangletown, was taken by “Thomas A. Woodward – Photographer” who resided in the adjacent community. The photograph illustrates the Bower Bridge Company repairing the span in the early 1900s. Though the original alignment was used until 1966, it’s unknown when or how the covered bridge was destroyed. Only the stone abutments remain to mark the site.

The date of construction and origin of the unusual name of the Old Cannon Bridge which stood over the north fork of the Licking River until 1947 seems lost to time. The profusion of turnpike construction in Mason County and northeastern Kentucky, including the Mt. Carmel and Maysville Turnpike, in the first ten years following the Civil War suggest circa 1870 as likely. Unusual for a covered bridge of this late date was the use of the Town lattice truss – more efficiently built trusses such as the multiple kingpost or the Howe truss had come into favor. As economy was ever the watchword, more unusual for a Kentucky bridge of this era was the use of horizontal siding; almost unheard of by then was the installation of louvres which had become uncommon in Antebellum. These costly appurtenances have led to suggestions that the bridge was built by Isaac Kisker, purported to have built the fondly recalled Sherburne Bridge at the Bath – Fleming County line in 1867. Though the name of the builder is unknown, the details, and specifically the truss, suggest a greater provenance to Thomas Hinton of Flemingsburg who built the nearly identical Town lattice over Cabin Creek between Ribolt and Tollesboro in Lewis County in 1869.

Very little seems to be recorded of the history of Old Cannon. One bit of known canon was reported in the Evening Bulletin on June 21, 1882: “one foot of water was standing over the floor.” The abutments which later carried the replacement steel bridge have been long since removed, but, the old approaches can still be seen just a few hundred feet upstream of the present alignment of Mt. Carmel Road.

Perhaps the most unusual truss in Mason County was the bridge over North Fork at Lewisburg. On May 24, 1901, the Fiscal Court announced in the Evening Bulletin that bids to repair the bridge would be received by Superintendent of the East Division of Roads for Mason County, William Luttrell, on June 10. The bid by Louis Bower, by then a resident of Flemingsburg was accepted. The Bulletin reported on July 27 that repairs had been completed and the bridge reopened on July 26.

An earlier covered bridge, “double-barreled” with two divided traffic lanes was built at the site in the early days of state turnpike construction. It was destroyed during the Civil War.

A small handful of photographs of the Lewisburg Bridge is known to exist though none show the span prior to the 1901 Bower repair. Unusual was the double web of offset trusses and arches. While double web trusses were not uncommon, the bridge appeared to be a unique combination of independent trusses connected to act in concert. This odd amalgam coupled with the fact that Bower had put the bridge back into working order in just two months, suggests the possibility that the internal web was added to strengthen the external web. Whatever repairs Bower undertook, they appear to have been well-designed as the bridge stood for another thirty-nine years.

As with Old Cannon, horizontal siding and louvres adorned the bridge for most of its life. The builder is unknown though the portal design was not unlike two covered bridges at the Garrard – Lincoln and Boyle-Lincoln County lines and one at the Garrard – Mercer County line attributed to the noted Central Kentucky bridge builder Ludwig Cornish. Cornish is not known to have travelled farther east than Lancaster to build or restore a bridge and the empirical similarity is likely coincidental.

By the mid-1920s Lewisburg might have been condemned on appearance alone. The trim horizontal siding had been repeatedly kicked and knocked out by boys and even men angling for a good fishing spot. In 1925, the bridge was refurbished by the Kentucky Highway Department. The siding was removed and the trusses painted white.

Denuded of its protective covering, Lewisburg limped along for another fifteen years. Preparations for replacement were announced June 23, 1940 and by the end of the year the old span was gone. The east abutment still stands adjacent to the concrete bridge.

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Robert W.M. Laughlin

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each Saturday, over the next several weeks, we will include installments of a series on covered bridges of the Mason County Buffalo Trace area. The series was researched and written by Robert W.M. Laughlin of Louisville. He is the co-author of the book Kentucky’s Covered Bridges and manages a Facebook page devoted to covered bridges in the commonwealth. He is a native of Frankfort, graduate of Frankfort High School and the University of Cincinnati College of Design Art Architecture and holds planning certification in Historic Preservation.