Spanning Time

Indiana’s treasured covered bridges celebrate a bygone era.
By Sally M. Snell

Even a simple snapshot of a covered bridge pulls in the viewer. You feel the cool interior on your skin, smell the dust and fresh-mown hay, hear the clop of horses and the rush of water below. No matter the time of year, covered bridges bring to mind fall leaves, antique shopping, long bicycle rides on quiet country roads and the last warm days of autumn.

Covered bridges can be traced to the Middle Ages of Europe, but it was not until 1805 when the first one was built in the United States in Philadelphia. Covered bridges tended to only be built in areas with concentrations of both suitable lumber and master craftsmen knowledgeable in truss construction. They were once plentiful in Vermont, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Theories abound why some bridges were built covered, among them to slow wood rot, keep the bridge surface ice-free and to make the water crossing less stressful for farm animals. Protecting the heaviest structural timbers from weather seems to be the most plausible explanation, adding up to 100 years to the life of the bridge.

It is estimated that Indiana once held more than 400 covered bridges. Many have been lost to fire, rot, vandalism, accidents, progress and apathy. Yet today, about 90 standing bridges can be found around the state, in addition to several dismantled bridges awaiting restoration.

Covered bridge capital of the world

Two of Indiana’s major covered bridge builders, Joseph J. Daniels and Joseph A. Britton, lived in Parke County, which is located in west-central Indiana. With 31 standing covered bridges, Parke County is known today as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World.” Parke County’s bridges are so plentiful, area residents celebrate them annually with a Covered Bridge Festival, this year to be held Oct. 8–17. The festival is extraordinarily popular, drawing more than 2 million visitors during the 10-day event, which falls at the peak of autumn color.

“Both weekends of the event are usually quite busy,” said Cathy Harkrider, office manager for Parke County, Inc., which disseminates area tourism information. “Through the week, the traffic slows a little, but nice fall weather and beautiful foliage bring thousands of visitors to Parke County any day of the festival.”

The festival is a countywide event, but a good place to start is at the headquarters in Rockville, Harkrider said. Rockville has two tour information centers, one in the old jail at 127 S. Jefferson, and the other in the old train depot at 401 E. Ohio. Maps, brochures and help with locating accommodations are available at the information centers.

“From the courthouse lawn, you can take a bus tour. We travel three different routes, making stops along the way,” said Harkrider. “You can leave your car parked and still travel out of the community and not have to fight the roads or the traffic. Leave that all to us.”

Tour buses run every day with varying schedules.

The back roads of Parke County can be narrow and winding, and with the increased festival traffic, it is essential that visitors come with a plan and lots of patience. Although there are plenty of antique, craft and food vendors, it is always a good idea to travel with bottled water and snacks to stave off hunger. Be sure to save room for a scoop or two of pumpkin-flavored ice cream.

With 2 million visitors, finding accommodations can be challenging, but Harkrider provided a few tips.

“If you’re going to make accommodations locally, you need to make reservations early,” she said. “We also offer an in-home housing project where you submit to us what type of room you are looking for, how many rooms and beds. People in our county rent out homes or rooms to accommodate the visitors.”

Parke County, Inc. also keeps track of vacancies at lodging facilities. And if all else fails, Terre Haute is a short drive from Parke County.

Some visitors would prefer to avoid the distractions of crowds and merchandisers. “If you want to just come and take a leisurely back tour of the covered bridges and drive yourself, you can do that 365 days a year,” said Harkrider.

Detailed maps are available through Parke County, Inc. in Rockville. Visitors are not bound by dry land. Several creeks are suitable for canoeing, and equipment can be provided by local merchants.

Bounty of bridges

Billie Creek Village, a living history farm museum in Parke County interpreting the early 1900s, is home to three relocated covered bridges: Beeson, Billie Creek and Leatherwood Station. Beeson is a 55-foot-long single span Burr Arch, originally built in 1906 and relocated to Billie Creek Village in the 1980s. The Billie Creek Covered Bridge is a single span Burr Arch, constructed in 1895. The bridge spans 62 feet over Williams Creek. Leatherwood Station was originally constructed over Leatherwood Creek by Joseph A. Britton in 1899. Leatherwood is a single span Burr Arch, 72 feet in length, that was relocated to Billie Creek Village in 1981.

Billie Creek Village, located just east of Rockville, contains a bed and breakfast, as well as a modern 30-room hotel. Guests may explore the 75-acre site, commune with farm animals, swim, take a mule-powered ride along the grounds, and shop for homemade jelly at the General Store.

The Narrows Covered Bridge is situated in Turkey Run State Park. The bridge is a single span Burr Arch Truss, built in the early 1880s by Britton. The structure, which spans Sugar Creek, is 121 feet in length, and 16 feet 6 inches wide, and 12 feet 6 inches high.

The small community of Mansfield becomes a bustling metropolis during the festival. The Mansfield Bridge is adjacent to a working roller mill, and crafts, antiques and collectibles are available at the mill from spring to fall. The bridge is a two span Burr Arch, and at 247 feet in length, is the longest covered bridge in the county. Joseph J. Daniels constructed the bridge in 1867.

The nearby Bridgeton Covered Bridge is another double span Burr Arch Truss, spanning 245 feet over a picturesque waterfall on Big Raccoon Creek. Daniels constructed the Bridgeton Covered Bridge in 1868.

Putnam and Montgomery Counties

More covered bridges are sprinkled throughout Parke County, but do not overlook adjacent counties for the treasures they hold. A 1998 survey of Putnam and Montgomery counties, along the eastern border of Parke County, showed they had nine and two bridges respectively. The 1880 Houck Bridge in Putnam County is a Howe Arch Truss. It spans 210 feet, and its windows look over Big Walnut Creek. Deer’s Mill Bridge, adjacent to Shades State Park in Montgomery County, is a Burr Arch, constructed in 1878 and stretching 275 feet.

Visiting these bridges transports you to a simpler era when America was young, and ingenious craftsmen sought ways to cross creeks and rivers. What they left behind were strong yet beautiful structures that stir a sense of romance and wonder that few steel and concrete bridges of today can match. •

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.


Above: Deer’s Mill Bridge in Parke County.

Below: Mansfield Bridge in Parke County. This area of Indiana, with 31 standing bridges, is known as the Covered Bridge Capital of the World.
© Michael Snell/Shade of the Cottonwood photos



Before You Go

For festival information, tour maps and assistance locating accommodations in Parke County, contact Parke County Tourist Information at (765) 569-5226, or visit www.coveredbridges.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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