By Bill Kresnak
This article appeared in the March 2002 issue of American Motorcyclist. Photo of Bridgeton Covered Bridge by Jacob Hilt.
I bank the big Suzuki Bandit into a righthand sweeper and suddenly find myself transported back 150 years.
The county road I’m on is now aimed straight for the town of Bridgeton, Ind., an authentic old-mill community with a colorful past. Ahead is Weise Mill, which is the oldest operating mill in the state and one of the places that earned Bridgeton the nickname of “Sodom” in the late 1800s.
But along the way, there’s the landmark I’ve come to see: Bridgeton Covered Bridge, one of the most photographed covered bridges in the Midwest.
The road now bypasses this landmark. The original was built in 1868 but was destroyed by an arsonist in 2005. It was rebuilt in 2006. At 245 feet long, it’s impossible to miss. The barn-red structure spans Big Raccoon Creek right above the dam built to power the mill.
I park the bike and walk up to peer into the bridge entrance. With arches and braces and rafters and decking all connected at precise angles, it’s a work of art.
Parke County, Ind. is one of the best spots on Earth to appreciate this mostly American art form. Parke County bills itself as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World,” and the 32 surviving covered bridges here make a strong case for that claim.
My ride began in the town of Rockville, located along U.S. Route 36 about 60 miles west of Indianapolis. Rockville’s Tourist Information Center, housed in a restored 1883 train depot, serves as the perfect starting point for a trip into the past. Here, you can get a map that outlines five 30-mile loops featuring 30 of the county’s historic bridges.
I picked up a copy, then headed out in search of my first bridge. And I immediately got more than I bargained for.
The map routed me onto a narrow two-lane road winding through wooded hills. I had to stop for a moment and remind myself that I really was still in Indiana. The state may be known for its endless corn fields and razor-straight horizons, but here, in the valley of the Wabash River, it looks more like Pennsylvania or Virginia.
Of course, the best way to see terrain like that is by getting off the main routes and exploring the back roads. And by coincidence, those are exactly the roads where covered bridges survive. So the maps that the county distributes for covered-bridge enthusiasts end up being perfect for motorcyclists looking to explore off the beaten path.
The road I took, designated the “Black” route, wandered left and right, climbing up and over hills, all while dwindling from a full two lanes wide to a one-lane path filled with potholes. Eventually, it turned to gravel just before I reached Crooks Bridge, Parke county’s oldest covered bridge.
Built in 1856, this 132-foot-long structure still rests on its original hewn stone foundations. And after all these years, you can still ride right through it. From the inside, the structure is truly impressive, with posts, the main vertical supports; braces, the angled beams that make a rigid structure; chords, the long, horizontal supports that go in the direction of travel; and roof beams all assembled like a set of Tinker Toys.
It’s hard to believe, but many of these bridges were made entirely without metal, using wooden pegs to connect all the pieces. And yet, a fair percentage of those have escaped destruction by arsonists, vandals and highway departments, and stand nearly as strong today as they were when they were built.
It’s tough enough to imagine the complexity of building a 130-foot bridge like Crooks, but walking the entire length of the 245-foot span just down the road at Bridgeton is simply staggering. I find myself lost in thought just picturing the scope of this construction project.
Why go to such lengths to cover a bridge? You might think it was to provide protection for people passing through, or to shield a horse’s eyes from the sight of dangerous water below, or even to provide a spot where young suitors, taking their sweethearts for a ride in the family wagon, could steal a kiss out of sight of onlookers. But the real reason is considerably less romantic.
When settlers arrived in the New World from Europe, they set about building bridges to connect their growing communities. And the most abundant construction material was found in America’s vast forests.
Those settlers quickly discovered that wooden bridge decks left exposed to the elements didn’t last very long. So the solution was to build a structure over the top, with a roof that would shed rain and snow, protecting the travel surface beneath.
Covered bridges had been used in parts of Europe for centuries, but most wooden bridges there had long since been replaced by stone structures. So the American colonists had to invent their own construction techniques.
Carpenters in New England built the first American covered bridges, using methods borrowed from barn construction. Over time, though, several pioneers developed specific designs that were better suited to bridge construction. One of these innovators was Theodore Burr, who came up with the idea of adding a massive wooden arch spanning the river on each side of the bridge.
Burr patented his invention in 1804, and bridge builders quickly adopted his design. Indeed, the Bridgeton span, like the majority of covered bridges constructed in Parke County (and nearly all of those that survive) are of the Burr Arch design.
Motoring slowly away, I cruise the empty streets of this 19th century town, much of which is included in the National Register of Historic Places. My route takes me past the mill, which was the heart of the community when it was built in 1870. A couple dozen other historic buildings still stand, including the general store and saloon that helped earn Bridgeton a reputation as a wild town for the drunkenness, fighting and horse racing that went on here.
The road out of Bridgeton is great, with quick, left-right-left transitions interspersed with fast sweepers. I’m having so much fun that I miss my turn and end up on a gravel road. I follow it for a while, and figuring I must be lost, stop to check my map.
I am lost, but it turns out that this is no problem. The map indicates there’s another covered bridge just up the road in Mansfield. But I decide to go back and linger in Bridgeton, saving the rest of my tour for another day.