Time and elements take their toll

Robert W.M. Laughlin
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In Kentucky’s Covered Bridges, A Bower Bridge Company photograph on page 110 illustrates a long covered bridge identified as the bridge over Lee’s Creek on the old alignment of U.S. 68 near May’s Lick.

The photograph was taken circa 1900 during a repair. The bridge is heavily adorned with advertisements for a Maysville department store though the name of the store is not evident. Further research has determined that this is not the bridge near May’s Lick and may, perhaps, be of an Ohio bridge. Nonetheless, the photograph does provide an interesting glimpse into advertising of the era.

The recently lost Valley Pike Bridge was for many years the only privately owned authentic covered bridge in Kentucky. The Stonerside Farm bridge, built in recent years in Bourbon County, appears in photographs to be authentic though information is scarce. The 24-foot kingpost truss at the entrance to the Bouldin Farm just a few miles from Dover was tied with a bridge over Dry Run in Scott County built in 1824 as the shortest covered bridge known to have been built in Kentucky. It was recently stated by the owner, Mr. Douglas Daugherty that he regretted the decision to demolish the bridge but it had become unsafe. Mr. Daugherty further stated in an interview published by The Ledger Independent, May 22, 2018, that “ ‘with almost complete surety that the components were not original.’ None of the beams were hand-hewn,’ he said, ‘and some of the work showed signs of being made with a circular saw.’ ”

Given the provenance of the bridge to an 1864 construction date, hand-hewn timbers would have been a greater surprise. With but a few exceptions, hand-hewn timbers in covered bridges typically predate the 1830s. By that time the use of steam powered reciprocating “pitman” saws had become the standard. The marks left by these blades would be lateral. By the 1860s the radial saw had begun to overtake the rip saw as the more efficient tool for milling raw lumber. By the 1870s it had become the standard. Valley Pike had had many repairs in its life, several under the stewardship of Mr. Daugherty, but, the marks left by “a circular saw” do not necessarily belie its age as confirm it.

It was announced in the Evening Bulletin on July 17, 1883 that “a wooden or iron bridge across Pummel Creek near Lowell” was to be built. Again, Jacob Bower was selected and a covered bridge was built on the Dexter and Catron Mills Road. Bower was later contracted to build the covered bridge which stood nearby over North Fork on the Shannon Turnpike. No photographs of either of these long gone spans have been discovered.

Today, Murphysville in west central Mason County is a collection of scarcely a dozen homes bypassed by U.S. 62. In the 1870s, it was a thriving community of twice as many residences, three stores, a grist mill, a post office, and two schools. The two sides of the community were linked by a 100-foot combination kingpost and queenpost truss over the north fork of the Licking. In later years, the bridge was augmented by laminated arches. Always an important road, the turnpike between Mount Olivet and Maysville carried heavy traffic in even its earliest days, eventually becoming a federal highway. Repaired and rebuilt by the Bower Bridge Company about 1914, the automobile effected an early demise for the old truss – it being replaced about 1930. The old turnpike which brought daily bustle and commerce into the once thriving community can still be seen just north of the present road and terminating just a few hundred feet short of where its nearly forgotten timbered tunnel once stood.

Of the 18 covered bridges known to have once stood in or at Mason County perhaps the best known in its day was over the north fork of the Licking River on the Maysville – Lexington Turnpike. The original crossing at the site was a mill dam at the quondam settlement of Springfield, situated where the North Fork again turns north. This forgotten portion of the old road essentially followed the buffalo trace. The wood bridge encountered by Fortescue Cuming is believed to have stood at this site. Springfield was still enough of a community to warrant a road, paralleling the river, to connect it to the new turnpike in the 1830s. By the 1870s only a single residence marked the site. Today, no traces of Springfield remain to be seen.

The southward extension of the Maysville and Washington Turnpike was completed in 1835 and was known as the Maysville, Washington, Paris and Lexington Turnpike. Lewis Wernwag was contracted to build the covered bridges on the road, six in all. A seventh, historically attributed to him was later built over Lee’s Creek near May’s Lick as was one over Johnson Creek at Fairview – this standing until the early 1930s. These original six stood at the crossings of North Fork; over the main Licking at Blue Licks, over Johnson Creek and over Stony Creek near Ellisville in Nicholas County; over Hinkston at Millersburg, and at Paris he constructed the “misplaced” Cottontown Bridge over Stoner. The prodigious Wernwag is known to have built at least 16 covered bridges in the Commonwealth and consulted on the constructions of two others. At least two credible possibilities are known though a great many more with no provenance to fact have been credited to the master architect.

The first covered bridge over the North Fork was built by Wernwag in 1833. Given the approximate length of 81 feet of the crossing, he likely used the queenpost truss which he tended to favor on shorter spans. It has been long stated that the bridge was burned by Morgan’s forces retreating from the Second Battle of Cynthiana (Battle of Keller’s Bridge) on June 8 or 9, 1864 – reportedly the same day that Morgan’s men robbed the Piles family store in Sardis. No photographs of the first bridge are known.

The long-remembered covered bridge over North Fork at the Pyles’ farm dated to 1864 or 1865. The bridge also abutted the Ryan family farm which was purchased by the Pyles family in the “1930s or 1940s.” The 81-foot queenpost truss nearly suffered the fate of its predecessor. Reported by the Public Ledger on March 25, 1898, fire was discovered in the bridge. Believed to have been the work of Turnpike Raiders, it was extinguished by “Mr. Mike Young, Tollhouse Keeper” before any significant damage could occur. A home reasonably purported to have been the tollhouse still stands northeast of the site of the old bridge.

The Locust Bend Farm where the bridge stood was a Revolutionary War land grant and was purchased from the original heirs by James Piles (Pyles) in 1864. The purchase was for about 240 acres and today, the farm, owned and managed by James’ great-great-grandson and his wife, has grown to just over 2,000 acres. Family legend holds that James Piles saw the smoke from his still-extant home which he had just built about one mile from the crossing and when he investigated found the bridge fully involved.

As it was a major crossing, the bridge was well-maintained until the last years of its life. In 1926, a new floor, roof, and new siding were installed by the Kentucky Highway Department. The portals were redesigned mimicking Wernwag’s simple portal remaining at Moransburg – a style favored by the Highway Department – and the bridge painted white. Several years later, the siding was removed and concrete encasements were installed at three of the four bearing ends of the queenpost truss. This encasement ultimately spelled doom for the old span. Intended to augment the deteriorated truss bearings, continuous contact of the poplar lumber with concrete allowed water to collect and hastened the deterioration. In January, 1937 a truck was crossing and the southeast bearing broke; the entire bridge collapsed into the stream – the driver survived. Local lore states that the next person to have crossed would have been a nearby resident with a healthy affinity for drink. Caught on “the wrong side of the bridge” he made himself useful by stopping approaching traffic notifying them of s terrific plunge were they to continue.

Wernwag’s stone abutments from 1833 can still be seen downstream of the concrete bridge, itself bypassed in the mid-1960s, built to replace it.

Of Jacob Bower’s craft was the 105-foot multiple kingpost truss over North Fork on the Dixon Pike southeast of Orangeburg. Announcement of Bower’s contract was published in the Evening Bulletin on June 10, 1884. On Sept. 24, 1884 the Bulletin announced completion of the span. Oddly-formed arches were added to the horizontally-sided truss by Louis Bower about 1912. As usual he signed his work by painting the portal boxing white and the battens green, still evident in the two known photographs both taken by J. Winston Coleman on Aug. 30, 1945. Though it was believed that replacement came in 1947, it was announced in the Cincinnati Enquirer, July 29, 1948, that the contract to replace the span had been let the prior day. The steel pony truss, still in use at the crossing on Bower’s stone abutments was built by the Champion Bridge Company of Wilmington, Ohio at a total cost of $10,000. As the Valley Pike Bridge was generally unknown at the time it was stated in the Enquirer that Dover was [then] the last remaining covered bridge in the county.

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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.