Lewis Wernwag was considered in his day to be the greatest of all the covered bridge builders and this legacy has carried into modern times. Surprisingly, given his contemporaneous fame, no images of the master architect are known to survive.
Wernwag was a journeyman bridge builder and often spent several years in a state or community, staying as long as there was work to be had. Between 1832 and 1839 he is known to have built at least 16 covered bridges in Kentucky and likely several others. Well into the 20th Century many Kentucky covered bridges were reported to have been built by Wernwag in spite of documented proof otherwise. Due in no small part to the well-known Camp Nelson Bridge over the Kentucky River, the “Wernwag type” of bridge became a common synonym in the commonwealth for the covered bridge in the 1800s, further defined in such text as “being fully roofed and boxed in with siding.”
The home Wernwag built for his family in 1835 still stands on Pike Street (Old U.S. 68) in May’s Lick.
An unsubstantiated rumor in Kentucky but curiously absent in profiles of the transplanted German in other states is that he was a “genius on paper only.” It was often reported, though all accounts appear after his life, that Wernwag was “a cripple” and that the work of translating his drawings to wood fell to a brother, Thomas. Only in Kentucky is any reference to Thomas Wernwag known to exist.
Numerous contemporaneous accounts of Wernwag (sans Thomas) exist recounting his building of covered bridges in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and most of the northeast and mid-Atlantic states in addition to Kentucky. Perhaps the best surviving sketch of his life was written in a letter by his son, John and excerpted below
“Harpers Ferry, August 27, 1874
Samuel Smedley, Esq.
Dear Sir: Your letter come to hand enclosing a paper giving an account of the Upper Ferry Bridge built by my father in 1812. Your letter also propounds several questions in relation of that bridge, all of which I endeavor to answer, as far as I am able, at the same time I must state that I have not now any record of my father’s transactions, all of which was lost in the terrible flood in ’70 on the Shenandoah River. Therefore, if there should be any inaccuracies in the statement I make, it must be attributed solely to my memory.
In reply to your first question, I will state that my father was born in Reidlengen, in Germany, and died at Harper’s Ferry, VA, the 12th day of August, 1843, aged 75 years, 8 months and 8 days.
My father built his first bridge across the Neshamnony (sic) on the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike in 1810, in 1811 he built a draw-bridge at Bridgeburg across the Frankford Creek; 1812 the bridge at the Upper Ferry; in 1813 and 1814 the bridge at New Hope on the Delaware; in 1815 and 1816, the bridge at Reading; in 1816 he contracted for the Monongahela and Allegheny bridges at Pittsburg (sic). In 1817 the bridge at Wilkes-Barre and one at the Falls of Schuylkill, and five miles of canal in Schuylkill County; in 1818 contracted for the bridge at Connewingo on the Susquehanna, and one Jones Falls, Baltimore; in 1820-1821 he put up the bridge on the Brandywine near Wilmington in 1822-23 the bridge at Pauling’s Ford on the Schuylkill, and rebuilt a pile bridge on the Choptank River, and contracted for the bridge at Harper’s Ferry, to which place he moved in 1824. While engaged at this bridge he put up one on Goose Creek, Loudon County, VA and also one on the Gunpowder. During the years from 1827 to 1830 he built the bridge across the Manoguay, near Frederick City, and also built the bridge at Port Deposit; part of which was destroyed by fire; also one at Cambridge, Ohio on the National Road; in 1830 he built the railroad bridge on Manoguay for the B & O Railroad, and contracted for the bridge across the Kentucky River and several smaller ones on the Maysville turnpike, and one in Indiana which be gave to his sons Lewis and William; in 1834 and 35 he built the bridge at Romney across the south branch of the Potomac, and a smaller one on this side of it; in 1836 he built the railroad bridge across the Canal and Potomac at Harper’s Ferry. This was the last of his labors as a bridge builder.
I believe from the statement I have made of his labors during the period mentioned you will be able to form a correct idea of his talents as an architect and builder. In reference to your request to give you an account of the early days of my father, I must state that I am not prepared at the present time to do so, but when I have more leisure I will give you a sketch of his younger days and the facts and incidents connected with the cause of his being compelled to leave his native country. More than twenty years have passed away since I wrote a sketch of his life, as he narrated it from time to time to his family. I loaned it to a friend at the time the war broke out; he died soon after, and the sketch was lost.
There are only two members of our family: viz: Joseph P. Shannon of Baltimore, and my brother Lewis of Lexington, MO, but whether they can give you any additional information I am unable to say.
I have no knowledge of the fire, but what was published in the papers soon after it occurred. I will now relate an incident that occurred at the completion of the Upper Ferry Bridge, which I think ought not to be lost, but I must defer the narration to state that reports had been circulated as coming from men of well-known standing and ability as architects and builders, that the bridge would not stand, and that as soon as the scaffold was taken from under it, it would crush together and fall into the river. This report spread far and wide, and was the cause of thousands assembling on the banks of the river to see it fall. The morning of the eventful day arrived. The managers had assembled on the porch of Sheridan’s Tavern discussing (no doubt) what would be the fate of the bridge. When my father approached them the first salutation was “Well, Lewis, do you think our bridge will stand the test today?” His reply was: “Yes, gentlemen, it will,” and requested them to go on the bridge with him; they did so. When they came to the first set of blocks and wedges on which the arch rested, he requested one of the managers to examine them. After doing so he replied “they are all loose”. The next set was found in the same condition. Then they went on until the whole were examined and the bridge was found to be clear of the tresselling (sic) and the arch resting on its abutments. My father in relating the incident to me said he never saw the countenances of men brighten up as those of the managers when he informed them that the bridge was freed from the scaffold the day before, thus proving to them its stability and putting to silence the reports concerning it forever.
The bridge (Upper Ferry, Harper’s Ferry, Virginia)was a strong one and has stood a heavy test. William Wolf, a teamster who hauled marble to Philadelphia, told me that he hauled a stone over the bridge weighing 22 tons with 16 horses attached to a double wageon (sic). This was the brag of the day, the stone being quarried out for that express purpose.
I have now given you a short sketch of my father’s labors with a few exceptions from 1810 to ’36, altogether from memory. As I stated in the beginning of this letter, I will again report that all his books, papers, draughts, plans, reports of managers of the different bridges he built, and other valuable papers that were in my possession was lost in the flood of 1870. Could have them to refer to I would have been able to have made the above statements more full and satisfactory.