America's Covered Bridges

Kindly contributed by Ronald G. Knapp, expert in all things Chinese, author of Things Chinese, Chinese Bridges, Chinese Houses and House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese and co-author of the recently released America's Covered Bridges, which follows the fascinating story of these icons of the American landscape, from their construction to their impact on America's transportation system and expansion as a nation.

Those who stop to visit the usually modest sized covered bridges in rural areas of the United States and Canada—some 800 still standing of about 15,000 built—often marvel nostalgically at their simple beauty and high levels of craftsmanship. Largely forgotten however are the many extraordinarily long, complex, and unquestionably daring wooden covered bridges built during the early and middle years of nineteenth century that are no longer standing. These audaciously long covered bridges—some of which exceeded a mile in length—can only be glimpsed today in old photographs and etchings or suggested by intact stone piers that protrude like a dotted line above the water. As I’ve stood on the banks of some of the broad rivers in the eastern United States, I’ve been able to conjure up some of the elongated wooden covered bridges that spanned them, the precursors of substantial iron, steel, masonry, and reinforced concrete uncovered bridges that eventually replaced them that we see today. Standing on the gently sloping shoreline of the Susquehanna River just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the town of Wrightsville, one sees today two very long modern bridgesthat stretch to Columbia, one on the north carrying Route 30 and to the south a second carrying Route 462. Between them jutting up through the water are nearly thirty stone piers, the only remains of what were arguably the three longest wooden covered bridges ever built.

The first Columbia-Wrightsville covered bridge, begun in 1812 and completed in 1814, survived less than twenty years. High water and packs of ice tore away approximately 2/3 of it in 1832. A replacement bridge partially using salvaged wood was then opened in the summer of 1832. Just a bit shorter at 5,620 feet (1710 meters) and narrower at 18 feet (8.5 meters), this second span remained the world’s longest covered bridge at more than a mile in length. To lighten its interior, the walls were whitewashed. A striking element of this second bridge was the addition of a pair of tow paths with sidewalls for use by mules and horses at different levels so that they could haul canal boats in both directions, thus enabling the movement of bulky commodities across the river, linking them with the extensive Pennsylvania canal network. With further advances in transportation at mid-century, a double-track rail line was added so that trains, like the canal boats, could be hauled through the covered wooden bridge ‘tunnel’, in this case reducing the fire hazard if they had been moving through with fully powered steam engines spewing out sparks and soot laden smoke.

However, it was fire that brought the demise of the second Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. On June 28, 1863 during the Civil War, local militia set the bridge ablaze to prevent Confederate troops from marching into Lancaster County and on to Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In just six hours, the world’s longest covered bridge was consumed and lay in ruins.

The third Columbia-Wrightsville covered bridge, a multi-purpose structure that included a roadway, railway, and walkway and constructed of wood, stone, and steel atop 27 piers was begun in 1868 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Even with its strength, this sturdy bridge was no match for a late September hurricane in 1896, which destroyed it. Its successor, the fourth bridge on this site, was not made of wood but comprised a steel truss said to be resilient to fire, ice, water and wind. Since 2003, a local organization has hosted “Flames across the Susquehanna” to commemorate the Civil War burning of the mighty Columbia-Wrightsville Covered Bridge. While the covered bridge is no longer standing, the stone piers remain and atop them at sunset cribs of cord wood are lit ablaze, providing each year an evocative reminder of a momentous day in American history.

Photos used with the following permissions:
Second Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge
Second Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge (1863)
Source: Used with permission of Bradley Schmehl,
Third Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge (1868; destroyed 1896)
Source: used with permission National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, R. S. Allen Collection.