Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Sticks And Stones

This is the first of two posts that talk about the materials used in Indiana's historic bridges. Wood and stone are the natural materials used in the state's oldest spans.

In man's earliest attempts to cross rivers and streams, available materials were limited and so ingenuity had to prevail. And it only seems natural that two of the most prevalent elements, wood and stone, would play a dominant role. Although the earliest wooden structures were found to be of limited longevity, substantial stone structures dating back several centuries remain today. The same holds true in the Hoosier state, where the oldest remaining documented bridges come from these materials. Although earlier simple open wooden spans were built, documents show that they typically only lasted a decade or so, or until the first big flood hit. It wasn't until more organized efforts were made to build these structures stronger and cover them with a roof and siding that any great longevity was realized.

Indiana's earliest stone bridges were built for railroads and canals. The Pike Street underpass of the Madison Railroad might be the oldest remaining, dating to 1837. It is located in the historic community of Vernon in Jennings County. The Camp Creek Bridge at Dupont in Jefferson County likely dates from the same period. Another very unique stone arch spans Burnetts Creek in Carroll County and has an interesting story. The little bridge was built about 1840 and originally carried the Wabash & Erie Canal across the creek. At some time after the canal failed, the bridge was converted for roadway use and now carries Towpath Road across the stream.

Today, with the exception of a bridge scattered here and there, the majority of Indiana's remaining stone arches exist in the Southeastern part of the state. Decatur, Franklin & Ripley Counties yield the highest concentration, with Decatur retaining well over two dozen of these spans. These range from tiny single spans to ones that have as many as 5 arches in them. Some of them look almost as good as the day they were built (late 1800's on most of these), while others have been badly altered to keep them in service. Today, thanks to Indiana's Historic Bridge Inventory, many of the nicer examples will hopefully be preserved for a long time.

Vernon Fork Stone Arch Bridge near Milhousen in Decatur County

Today, Indiana's covered bridges enjoy an almost enigmatic status...thanks largely in part to Parke County and it's rightful claim as the "Covered Bridge Capital of the United States". Around 90 of these quaint structures remain statewide, and most have been well cared for. Several of them are at the center of festivals which attract thousands of tourists to them each year, with the 10 day Parke County festival ranking as one of the largest in the US. Unlike Indiana's other types of historic bridges, it has been over 30 years since a covered bridge was willingly replaced with a newer span. Arson fires and Mother Nature have claimed the only casualties since the Moore Covered Bridge in Gibson County was replaced in 1978.

The Hoosier State's earliest covered bridge is believed to have been the Mooresville Bridge (also known by the peculiar name of Shelf Bracket), built at the community now known as Floyd's Knob in Floyd County about 1822. This bridge, along with a pair of spans in nearby Greenville, was built by the Albany & Paoli Turnpike Company. By the 1830's, many covered spans were being constructed on the National Road (US40) with the first being completed West of Dublin (in Henry County)over Symon's Creek in 1834. In 1838, two bridges were built in Putnam County as part of a turnpike from Greencastle to Crawfordsville. One of these spans was known as the Ramp Creek Bridge and served until 1932, when it was replaced by a new bridge. However, instead of being demolished, this unique 2-laned structure was moved by the state to cross Salt Creek at the North entrance to Brown County State Park. It stands there today as Indiana's oldest remaining covered bridge. Covered spans continued to be built into the 20th century, despite the competition from metal and concrete spans. The last known public built covered bridge was erected in 1922, also in Putnam County. Known as the Edna Collings Bridge, this little span also remains today over Little Walnut Creek in the Western part of the county. Nearly half of Indiana's remaining covered bridges are located in adjoining Parke and Putnam Counties, and many of these can be attributed to 2 of the state's most prominent builders J.J. Daniels and J.A. Britton who both lived in Rockville. Many of the bridges remaining in Southeast Indiana were built by the Kennedy family of Rushville, and feature some very distinctive Victorian embellishments. Most of the other remaining covered spans were built by either local carpenters or by larger bridge building firms.

Photo of the Ramp Creek Covered Bridge taken by Jonathan Parrish

Indiana's wooden and stone bridges are a historic resource that deserve to be maintained for our future generations to enjoy. It will take enough caring people from each of those generations stepping forward to make it happen.

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