WOODEN COVERED BRIDGES HAVE EXISTED IN AMERICA FOR MORE THAN 200 YEARS. MOST OF THEM ARE FOUND IN RUSTIC, RURAL SETTINGS ON QUIET BACK ROADS. SUCH IDYLLIC PLACES – WITH STREAMS, WOODS, AND HISTORIC BRIDGES – LURE MANY TO VISIT THE 200-PLUS COVERED BRIDGES IN PENNSYLVANIA.
Why are there covered bridges? Many reasons are proposed, but only one is true: They were covered to protect wood components from deterioration caused by weather elements. Without roofing, the bridges probably would not last 20 years before falling apart. With regular maintenance, particularly for the roofing, a wooden covered bridge would outlast many of the stone bridges of the same era.
The longest covered bridge in Pennsylvania, the 279-foot Academia Covered Bridge in Juniata County was recently restored.
(Photo: Courtesy of Jim Smedley)
Pennsylvania has a rich history of authentic wooden covered bridges. The first covered bridge in America was the Permanent Bridge, built in 1805. It carried Market Street over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Timothy Palmer, one of the true pioneers in bridge building, built the Permanent Bridge, which stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1875.
The longest covered bridge in the world was the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, which connected York and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania. The 5,690-foot, 28-span bridge crossing the Susquehanna River was built in 1813 and lasted until 1832, when it was destroyed by an ice jam. It was replaced by another covered bridge of almost equal length in 1834. On June 28, 1863, it was burned down deliberately by Union troops during the Civil War to keep the Confederate army from advancing to Lancaster and Philadelphia.
Another bridge builder, Theodore Burr, was famous for his multiple-span structures over the Susquehanna River, all built in the early 19th century. Burr is known for his Burr arch patent used in many bridges across America. Burr constructed bridges across the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania at Berwick, Northumberland, and Harrisburg, as well as the McCall's Ferry Bridge located near Holtwood and Camelback Bridge.
By the 1870s, more than 1,500 covered bridges conveyed trains, wagons, and pedestrians over the many Pennsylvania waterways. Often, the bridges were located near farms and mills, providing access for traders and horse-and-buggy travelers.