Covered bridges of Mason County: And then there was one

Officially recognized as Kentucky’s oldest covered bridge, the 60-foot Dover Bridge over Lee’s Creek is an unusual modified queenpost truss credibly believed to date to 1835.

It has been stated many times that it was originally a toll bridge, but, in fact, it was not. Dover stands at what was at the head of the Lee’s Creek Turnpike and the toll house stood adjacent the bridge to the southeast. The covered bridge was, itself, a free bridge owned by the county.

In 1920, Louis and Mary Bower took then 15-year-old Louis Stockton Bower, Jr. to the Dover Bridge. His father announced to his young apprentice that they were leaving for a two week vacation and he was to raise the bridge three feet and replace the floor in their absence. This third documented restoration of the old bridge was the first for the third and last generation bridge builder of the Bower Family.

During this restoration Maysville photographer Leo Chrisman came to document the work. As Stock busied himself at his task for the camera, he made a misstep at an open truss panel near the south portal. Fortunately, Chrisman was at the ready on the bank below and captured the image of the teenage bridge builder suspended mid-air between the old bridge and the ancient creek. All that was hurt was his pride as the mill dam still stood and provided a five to six foot cushion of water to soften the impact.

Injuries to pride and self were not always humorous. On July 9, 1907, as reported in the Public Ledger of July 11th, Thomas Russell, and Willis Laycock, had been drinking in Ripley, Ohio and returned, well lubricated, to Russell’s blacksmith shop adjacent the bridge. The details of their ensuing argument are unknown, but, as Laycock was leaving, Russell fired a shotgun into him. Laycock’s injuries, though serious, were not immediately fatal.

When announced in 1948 that the Dixon Pike Bridge would fall, it was also announced that there were plans in effect to similarly replace the Dover Bridge the next year. Long neglected and with almost all the siding intentionally removed from the downstream truss to allow the passage of high water, Dover appeared to be headed for the noose. Replacement did not come in 1949 and was again discussed in 1951. It was announced by then County Judge pro tem John P. Lloyd that “as long as it can hold traffic, it stays.”

On October 2, 1955, as reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer of October 3rd it was announced the 120-year-old bridge was to be closed to traffic in preparation for replacement. The Enquirer, on October 8th reported a change of heart – announced on October 4th, the bridge would not be closed but would be instead condemned by the Fiscal Court and signs posting “Bridge Unsafe. Travel At Your Own Risk” would be installed. This condemnation was the result of an inspection report by the Kentucky Highway Department which stated that $12,000 would be required to bring the bridge up to minimum specification.”

Restoration came mid-1966. The Kentucky Highway Department trued the truss, installed new siding, a new roof, a new floor, faced the abutments with reinforced concrete, and installed guardrails on the Rights of Way. The total cost was $11,158.42 ($15,940.34 had been allocated). Two changes were made to the structure. The three ventilation panels on the upstream side and still framed downstream were omitted when the new siding was installed, and, the pitch of the roof, swayback as a result of the “Great Snow of 1950” was increased. This necessitated a slight redesign of the portals, though the old portal boxing marking the original pitch could still be seen inside the bridge until recent years.

In an unusual move for the time, the Highway Department recommended that the bridge remain open to traffic.

In December, 1966, in a ceremony dedicating the renewed span as “a State Shrine” late-Commissioner of Highways Henry Ward commended Miss Hilda Threlkeld with her dedication to preserving the bridge. Miss Threlkeld, deceased by the day of the ceremony, had been a teacher and dean at the University of Louisville for twenty-five years and was President of the Mason County Historical Society during the restoration. Also cited were members of the Fiscal Court as well as Mrs. C.C. Calvert Jr., Mrs. E.J. Breslin, and Mrs. Robert K. Allison, all members of the Historical Society who were active in ensuring the restoration. Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Weber, Mr. & Mrs. P.A. Barrett, Mr. & Mrs. J. Scott True, and Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Dwyer all donated adjacent land for the public use.

It was fortunate that restoration came in 1966. Just sixteen months following the dedication ceremony the bridge was heavily damaged by the April 23, 1968 tornado which devastated the community of Dover. Had the restoration been postponed, the high winds would likely have collapsed the nearly moribund old span.

In 2005 Tuckahoe Road was rerouted downstream and a concrete bridge built to replace the then 170-year-old timbered tunnel. Following the precedent of the Goddard Bridge in adjacent Fleming County, Dover was the second Kentucky covered bridge left open to local traffic following bypass. It was reduced to a load limit of 6 tons.

Floods have compromised the Dover Bridge many times in its life. During the flood of February, 1884, the Evening Bulletin reported that the bridge had “floated off its piers.” The damaged abutments were repaired and the bridge restored to them. It was this same flood which destroyed Bower’s first bridge on the Ripley Ferry Pike.

Dover remained in use with only closures for the nonce until July 22, 2016 when high water from flash flooding severely wracked the truss. Steel I-beams installed circa 1980 to increase the load limit of the span to 11 tons were washed out by the force of the water and deposited on the creek bed some 100’ downstream. The wracking of the truss, shifted two feet downstream, transferred the load of the trusses to only the upper chords and severely compromised the ability of the bridge to carry even its own weight. Arnold M. Graton Associates of Ashland, New Hampshire was contracted to stabilize the truss by installing structural steel through the barrel and supporting the truss to remove the load. Graton was, at the time, in Washington County approaching the end of his two year restoration of the Beech Fork Bridge. Dover remains closed to all passage at this time awaiting a comprehensive restoration.

The last remaining Wernwag-built Kentucky covered bridge to stand over water was over Lawrence Creek at Moransburg. Built in the early days of turnpike construction, Wernwag, then a resident of Mayslick where his home still stands, completed the 60’ queenpost truss in the 1830s. Horizontally sided when built, Wernwag installed his unique exterior iron tie down rods which remained until the bridge was refurbished by the Kentucky Highway Department in 1925. At the time of this rebuilding, vertical siding replaced the long leaf poplar and a full length window to allow better visibility for traffic negotiating a blind curve at the east portal was installed. The addition of this opening, though beneficial to traffic, was detrimental to structure as it allowed water to collect in the lower chord of the upstream truss. Sometime between early June, 1942 and the end of August, 1945, a heavy load significantly damaged the upstream truss causing it to permanently deflect some twelve inches.

On July 22, 1946, the Mason County Fiscal Court passed a resolution directing replacement of Wernwag’s epilogue by “a modern concrete span.” By early 1947, the last of the old bridge had been razed leaving only the north abutment, now in ruin, to mark its place in legacy, in memory, and in history.

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Robert W.M. Laughlin

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each Saturday, over the last several weeks, we have published installments of a series on covered bridges of the Mason County. 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.