How Mount Washington Valley Covered Bridges Have Weathered the Storms
The scenic and historic area of the Mount Washington Valley, a year-round home for many, as well as a renowned tourist destination for over 150 years, is well-known for the nine historic covered bridges that dot its landscape. Included in this number are two bridges to the eastward in Maine at Fryeburg and Porter-Parsonfield, one bridge at the southern approach to the Valley in West Ossipee, one bridge to the westward in Sandwich, as well as five others in the heart of the Valley, located in the towns of Albany, Conway, Jackson, and Bartlett.
Perhaps you’ve visited them over the years and even, as I’ve done, guided out-of-state friends and families through their hallowed portals. Maybe you collect books or postcards about these old-time structures; or, if you’re artistic minded, you’ve even captured their likeness on canvas, a favorite sketch-pad, in needlepoint form, or in picture form. However, if what we mostly read in print about these covered bridges today is any indicator, they have been way over-romanticized and largely reduced in the public mind’s-eye to cute and quaint reminders of a bygone-era.
As covered bridge historian and author Richard Sanders Allen wrote of one Maine bridge: “Artists … have daubed more paint on canvas than has ever been slapped on its weatherbeaten sides.” This comment also applies to many of the bridges in the Mount Washington Valley. In fact, there is more to these unique and historic bridges than meets the eye and it’s high time that we view them in their proper context.
First and foremost, we must remember that covered bridges were an important part of our transportation network at the time they were originally constructed. Not only did these bridges provide an easy and safe way to cross a river, but their very building also helped, in many cases, to expand a town’s development by opening areas that were once difficult to access. This is especially true of the bridges in Conway.
Swift River Bridge, Conway, NH
The Swift River Bridge, originally built in 1850 by John Douglass and rebuilt in 1869 by Jacob Berry and his son, Jacob, Jr., gave access to the north of town via West Side Road. It remained a vital part of the town’s road system until 1974, when it was bypassed and replaced by the current concrete and steel bridge. It’s hard to believe it remained in public use that long, but it did. These covered bridges also were built to shorten the miles the local traveler had to make to get to town, whether it was a farmer bringing his produce to market or a family going into town to buy provisions.
Smith-Eastman Bridge, Conway, NH
The now-gone Smith-Eastman Bridge, which was built in 1845 by Peter Paddleford at a cost of $2,000 and destroyed by arson in 1975, offered travelers a 4-mile shortcut each way on their journey between Redstone and Center Conway. Now, in today’s motorized world, traveling these extra 8 miles in a day would mean nothing, but in the days of horse travel, this cut hours off the trip, a savings we can all appreciate. The Smith-Eastman Bridge was also significant as being one of only two covered bridges in America to carry the traffic of a U.S. highway (Route 302), an indicator of just how important this bridge was.
Hemlock Bridge, Fryeburg, Me
Finally, over in Fryeburg, Maine, the Hemlock Bridge, a lonely bridge over a bypassed channel of the Saco River, also had an important purpose. Built in 1857, it helped beleaguered residents cross a very meandering river, one described as “36 miles of river and six miles of country.” Without such bridges, the residents of Fryeburg could never have gotten “from here to there!”
Another reason we need to re-think the idea of reducing covered bridges to “cute” and “quaint” is the fact that these structures represented, at the time of their building, the height of economical bridge-building technology. Our ancestors did not care about their looks or style, but were rather concerned about building them at an affordable cost and with quality design that would last, thereby making them a sound town investment. Covered bridges are distinguished by their supporting members, the whole known as a truss system—the very essence of the bridge itself.
The Mount Washington Valley area is very fortunate that all its remaining bridges were built using a rare, but tried and true, truss type: the Paddleford truss. The truss system would create a structure that is solidly connected but flexible enough to withstand the seasonal expansion and contraction that comes with temperature fluctuations.
The Paddleford truss was one designed by bridge-builder Peter Paddleford of Littleton. His truss type was not patented due to its close resemblance to the Long truss, and thus remained a regional truss design, with early bridges, including the first Saco River Covered Bridge in 1850, being built by Paddleford himself.
Later, local builders became his disciples, including Jacob Berry (as well as his brother Horace and namesake son) and the father-son team of Charles and Frank Broughton, who built the current Saco River Bridge in 1890, the Honeymoon Bridge in Jackson in 1876, as well as others that are now long-gone.
As to the arches in these bridges, most were added at a later, although sometimes quite early, date. The fashioning of such wooden arches is largely a lost art practiced only by those who build or repair covered bridges today.
Take a look at these impressive timbers and you will see that they consist of multiple layers. The Porter-Parsonfield Bridge in Maine being 21 layers thick. The timbers were bolted together after being bent to form by heat, either in a specially designed heat box, or over an open pit that was adjacent to the bridge site. Taking all these things into account, it is easy to understand that these covered bridges were built by men of experience and not a simple country carpenter.
Of the covered bridge builders, we know little, except that they were excellent at their trade and built structures that lasted; and they were proud of their accomplishments.
Durgin Bridge, Sandwich, NH
When the Durgin Bridge in Sandwich was built c. 1869 by Jacob Berry to replace previous bridges that were washed away in 1844, 1855, and 1869, he boasted that it could be entirely filled with wood and still stand. While this feat was likely never attempted, one can’t help but think that Berry was correct. This remote bridge served a nearby gristmill, but the bridge site was also a link on the Underground Railroad, allowing runaway slaves to continue their trek towards freedom from Sandwich to North Conway. Berry’s thoughts on this aspect of the bridge’s history are unknown.
The Broughton’s were the last of the covered bridge builders in the area and were no less interesting—Charles Broughton having been a Civil War veteran and known for his fiddling and bear-hunting skills. Being an agent for the Swift River Lumber Company, he also surely profited not only from building his bridges but on the timber supply side as well. The identity of the builders of other bridges remains unclear. The 1851-built bridge in Bartlett, now a well-known gift shop, could have been built by any of the men previously discussed, but his name went unrecorded. Likewise, in East Fryeburg, Maine, the builder of the 1857-built Hemlock Bridge, the last of that town’s seven covered bridges, is also uncertain, which brings us to our final point.
Did you ever wonder why there are no bridge-builder’s plaques on covered bridges, no formal signs stating who the selectmen were that championed such a bridge to be built? While such plaques were the norm for later-day iron and steel bridges (and still are), in the days of covered bridge building, everyone knew the local man who built the bridge and his reputation stood on his own work—there was no need for such a fancy sign to crow about it.
No account of our bridges would be complete without some of their life stories. Just as with us humans, these bridges have had varied lives that show the trials and tribulations of their building, their decline, and demise (often several times over). While these stories may not be earth-shattering, they nonetheless serve as mile-markers in the passage of time.
Albany Covered Bridge, Albany, NH
The construction of the beautiful Albany Bridge began in 1857, but the bridge was blown down during a storm while being built. The town hired builders Amzi Russell and Leander Morton to rebuild it, offering $1,300, less the costs they had already paid out for the first structure. We hope the builders made some money on the job! Interestingly, on the banks of the river near the bridge, if you’re adventurous, you may still be able to find the remnants of a large timber which is believed to have been a part of the scaffolding used when the bridge was first built.
Porter-Parsonfield Bridge, Porter-Parsonfield , Me
In Maine, the Porter-Parsonfield Bridge embodied a town feud that lasted for over 100 years. When the first covered bridge was built over the Ossipee River, dividing the two towns in 1858, a dispute arose over the amount each town would pay. The issue was apparently settled when selectman Ivory Fenderson strode over the bridge to be replaced, and at a point somewhere in the middle, threw down his knife into the wooden plank and stated, “The town of Parsonfield shall build so far, and no further.” That seemed to end the issue, but hard feelings remained. When the current bridge was built in 1876, the towns each shingled their portion of the roof in a different manner, resulting in a mismatched structure that would remain as such until the state acquired title to the bridge in 1967 and made things right.
Of course, the Mount Washington Valley has been known for its storms and flooding over the years, but the year 1869 intertwined the fate of two bridges; heavy flooding that year resulted in the Swift River Bridge being knocked off its abutments. It subsequently barreled downstream on the torrential waters and rammed into the Saco River Bridge, destroying both bridges and causing many a transportation nightmare in the coming months. Both bridges were quickly repaired, and with typical Yankee frugality, the timbers of the old bridges were salvaged and reused. For many years, the Bartlett Bridge lived a quiet and unassuming life, useful certainly, until changing times caused it to be abandoned in 1939 and subsequently used as a storage shed for snow fencing. It remained an endangered bridge until it was sold privately in 1966, and since 1989 (or thereabouts) has housed the Covered Bridge Gift Shop, offering a unique souvenir shopping experience with an adjacent bed and breakfast.
Finally, we must not take our bridges for granted, as they can come under peril, and what you can see one year, may not be there the next.
Whittier Covered Bridge, West Ossipee, NH
The most endangered covered bridge in the area, perhaps in the entire state, is the Whittier Bridge in West Ossipee. It was built in 1870 by our old friend Jacob Berry in a beautiful spot on the Bearcamp River, on what was once a main highway. It has greatly deteriorated since 1983, was closed to traffic in 1989, and for many years, has been left high and dry on the river bank. While its current situation provides a unique opportunity to see a covered bridge close-up from all sides, it really needs to be refurbished and put back in its original home if it is to survive many more years.
So, there you have it: the covered bridges of the Mount Washington Valley in all their glory. Silent sentinels—survivors, if you will—of a time gone-by when local residents and travelers alike knew all too well the importance of their bridges.
We who see and visit them today can appreciate them, too, for the workmanship they embody and the real purpose they served. Picturesque? No doubt. Historic? Certainly. Survivors? Justifiably so.