Pennsylvania is among the tops in the number of covered bridges


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When it comes to bridges, we've got you covered.

Our Keystone State is not called the "Covered Bridge Capital of the Nation" for nothing.

Melissa Williams of Scottdale checked out that charming, if challenged, designation last weekend when she and some friends took a leisurely drive through Somerset County.

She followed a glorious full-color map prepared and distributed by that county's chamber of commerce. Using the map -- and a little help from her vehicle's GPS -- Ms. Williams was able to easily locate, photograph and bask in the history and romance of some of that county's vaunted 10 covered wooden bridges.

"It's a great background to photograph the leaves as they turn colors at this time of year," Ms. Williams said.

But she also admitted -- with a blush -- that her interest in finding these historical gems was more inspired by "The Bridges of Madison County," the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller, than the foliage.

Central to that love story is the work of a fictional National Geographic photographer who is visiting Madison County, Iowa, to create a photographic essay on covered bridges there.

The novel is one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, with 50 million copies sold worldwide. In 1995, it was made into a two-hanky blockbuster movie of the same name. The real-life, circa 1880s Roseman Covered Bridge in the book and film evolved into a top tourist attraction in Iowa.

"The book and movie have always been favorites of mine, but I think they could have been just as easily set and filmed in our own Western Pennsylvania," Ms. Williams, 52, said.

Covered to protect the structures from Pennsylvania's varied and often harsh weather, the bridges often are named for the pioneer families in the area.

Ms. Williams and friends mugged for the camera at the red-planked Glessner Bridge on state Route 1007, four miles off Route 30 in Stoystown. This covered span, built in 1881 and named for a local family, is one of the more popular bridge stops these days because it just a few miles from the 9/11 memorial in Shanksville, pointed out Ronald Aldom, director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce.

The marketing-savvy chamber has just released a glossy covered "Bridge -- And More" brochure that is this season's hot ticket, Mr. Aldom said.

The brochure is a driving tour of all 10 of Somerset County's covered bridges. The nearly 175-mile circle begins and ends in the county seat, also named Somerset. It takes nearly two days to comfortably complete the tour if visits to all of the other suggested touristy stops are included.

Road trip!

Indeed, now is the time for a road trip. Peak viewing time for autumn foliage and bridges is this weekend, said Christine Dorko of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau in Ligonier.

"People from all over the states -- and farther -- call us at this time of year to find 'bridges and leaves, bridges and leaves' " she said. "It's great for tourism."

And, tourism, of course, is big industry for rural counties such as Westmoreland, Somerset, Washington and Greene.

The latter two also have organized a combined driving tour to locate the covered bridges that dot their hills. Their tourist promotion agencies suggest a four-part driving tour, and the map can be downloaded at the easily navigable www.visitwashingtoncountypa.com.

The tour comes with credentials: Three years ago, Greene County was featured in the Martha Stewart Living magazine as one of the best places for fall foliage viewing in the mid-Atlantic.

From Pittsburgh's suburbs, the drive to any of Somerset's 10, Washington's 23 or Westmoreland's lone covered span takes little more than an hour. Finding covered bridges in Greene, which has seven, or Bedford County, which has 14, takes a little longer. In a nod to technology, a GPS often can be used to locate the bridges because many bridge sites listed on the Internet have coordinates.

Most of these historic wooden covered bridges cross land; a few cross water.

"And some go no where at all, except back in time," Mr. Aldom said.

Most can carry at least one lane of traffic, and while many have a height limit, all have to meet PennDOT standards for roadways. A few are blocked to vehicles -- but pedestrians and photographers are always welcome.

A path to history

These picturesque covered bridges still link Pennsylvania to a nearly forgotten past, Mr. Aldom noted.

The "charming relics," he said, were built between the early 1800s and the end of the 19th century. They are wood structures with a variety of trusses, designs and roof materials.

"You aren't going to see this kind of craftsmanship again," Mr. Aldom said. "So see and appreciate them now."

The Pennsylvania Covered Bridges Association, based in Lancaster, is dedicated to preserving the remaining covered spans throughout the state. According to its website, pacoveredbridges.com, our nation once had as many as 14,000 authentic wooden covered bridges. Today, fewer than 900 remain. Time and weather had taken their toll until recent years when federal grants became available for states, towns or, in some cases, civic groups to restore and maintain these bridges to our past.

Mr. Aldom said spans such as the Kings Bridge near Seven Springs resort were saved from certain destruction by interested residents who, in 2008, banded together to raise money to rebuild it. The red clapboard bridge, off Route 281 north near the village of Kingwood, was built in the late 1800s to cross Laurel Hill Creek. Its distinctive arches were added in 1907.

At one point, the Keystone State had at least 1,500 covered bridges, and today more than 200 have stood the test of time. Found in 40 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, more covered bridges exist in Pennsylvania than in any other state, according to the Theodore Burr Covered Bridges Society of Pennsylvania, based in Lancaster, as well as several websites, including Wikipedia.

Whether the numbers are accurate -- Vermont and New Hampshire claim more covered bridges per square mile than any other state and "Mother Nature can change the numbers with a storm," noted Mr. Aldom -- no one can argue that the bridges are reminders that our young nation was carved out of the wilderness with Yankee ingenuity.

First in the nation

Timothy Palmer built the young nation's first covered bridge over the Schuylkill River at 30th Street in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. The investors asked to have it covered in the hopes of extending its life.

The value of the covered bridge design was quickly recognized, as it greatly extended the life of the wooden bridges by protecting the side supporting timbers -- if not necessarily the floorboards -- from the weather.

Over the course of the next century, roughly 12,000 of these iconic spans were constructed across the country, especially in rural areas.

Mr. Aldom said that in the early 1800s, agriculture and industrialization were growing rapidly throughout the Northeast and rivers and estuaries were lifelines of both trade and communication. Farmers and industrialists needed bridges to efficiently move commerce, animals and people over the often rugged landscape.

Traditional European building methods (think: the stone bridge of sighs in Venice) wouldn't work in the comparatively harsh North American climate. The hot summers and frigid winters created freeze/thaw cycles that would overturn stone paving. So wood -- especially in a state full of timber -- became the building material of choice.

Pioneer builders chose to cover the bridges because less exposure to the elements meant the wooden superstructures would last longer.

And, as one can see, they have.



While there was still daylight, Ms. Williams and company drove to neighboring Westmoreland County, where its lone covered bridge is a photographer's dream. The red cedar and clapboard Bells Mill bridge near the village of Wyano is accessible from Interstate 70. (Get off at the West Newton Exit/Route 31, travel right toward Wyano and the bridge is only minutes away. But make sure your vehicle is less than 6 feet, 6 inches high.)

The group arrived at Bells Mills at a picture-perfect sunset just as another car was leaving. A young woman in that car said she was scouting the bridge as a possible wedding site.

"See? Covered bridges are romantic," Ms. Williams said.

For more on covered bridges, visit pacoveredbridges.com and www.tbcbspa.com; To get the Somerset County bridge map, call the Chamber of Commerce at 1-814-445-6431. For autumn tourism opportunities, visit www.laurelhighlands.org; www.somersetpa.net; www.visitbedfordcounty.com; visitwashingtoncountypa.com.


Virginia Kopas Joe: vkjoe@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1414. First Published October 13, 2011 4:00 AM


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