• by Tom Eastman

Crossing the Spans of Time - Covered Bridges Pay Tribute to the Past

It's been said that you can learn as much about a town's history from the graffiti and names crudely etched into the woodwork of an old covered bridge as you can from searching through dusty town records or taking a walk through a cemetery. The carvings tell stories of earlier lives and tribulations, just as the bridges do as they transport the sensitive person who appreciates history and craftsmanship back to an earlier era while providing him passage across a river. The bridges are two-fold links in that sense, proud reminders of a time when craftsmanship was the norm and practicality the key.

Covered bridges have been known in Europe since the MIddle Ages, and have been in existence in the United States since 1805. The first bridge to be built in New Hampshire did not go up until the 1820s during what is now referred to as the classic era of covered bridges. Unlike the earlier covered bridges, which had been elaborately decorated to impress travelers on the major turnpikes and city-ways, bridges from the classic era of the 1820s to 1910s were build plainly to serve more local needs. The majority of American covered bridges are of this second era, and are identified by their rustic appearance. A third era occurred in the twentieth century, lasting up until the late 1950s in such timber rich areas of Oregon, Quebec, and New Brunswick.

Of the 55 covered bridges still standing in New Hampshire, five are located in Mt. Washington Valley. The Honeymoon Bridge in Jackson Village, the Conway Covered Bridge over the Saco, and the Albany Bridge at the end of Still Road over the Swift River are still open to traffic among that group, while Conway Bridge over the Swift and the Bartlett Bridge are not. Each of the bridges has its own character and identity, reflecting both the requirements of the river they crossed as well as the particular skills and preferences of their designers.

All covered bridges have certain common components, however. Those in the Valley were built with abutments of split granite, with roofs designed to be steep and well braced to support the great weight of winter snow. The roofs themselves were not added for ornamentation or simply to provide a protective covering under which people could congregate in bad weather -- their intent was a purely practical one of preservation. Early builders were experts in wood, and consequently understood that the great enemy was moisture. The roofs were used to keep a bridge's inside structural timbers dry, particularly its supporting sides, or trusses, which gave the bridge its strength.

If they were properly designed and the trusses stayed dry, the bridge had a reasonably good chance of surviving New England's weather. As noted, covered bridge expert and builder Milton S. Graton of Ashland has stated, "Of those built well we have the 100-year-old-plus bridges as evidence. When a builder fell short in his judgment, the elements forced him to yield his location to the next builder. In many cases, we find that he also overlooked the most common enemy -- high water. Perhaps he thought that it couldn't happen again in the life span of his bridge."

The bridges which continue to span the rivers of Mt Washington Valley today date from the 1850s to 1890. Some disagreement exists among covered bridge lovers over which of the five remaining bridges is the oldest, although most books on the subject list the Albany Bridge off the Kancamagus Highway under that heading. Built in 1858 using a Long Truss design with an added shallow arch, the 136-foot-long bridge was restored in 1970 to some extent. Work on the bridge first began in 1857, but strong winds blew it down before it was completed. Going back to the drawing board, Amzi Russell and Leander S. Morton rebuilt the span well the following year, and it has withstood countless other gusts of North Country winds and high waters in the century since.

Further down the Swift River toward Conway Village stands the 144-foot-long Swift River Bridge, built in 1869 by noted builder Jacob Berry and his son. The Berrys' bridge replaced a pre-1857 structure which had been washed away that same year. According to local historian Helen Nute of North Conway, heavy rains in the spring of 1869 raised the rivers to an unusually high point and took out many bridges in New Hampshire, and the Swift was no exception. The rushing, mud-boiled water lifted the old Swift River span from its foundations, swung it around in the current, and cascaded it downstream where it crashed into a second bridge which stood where the Saco River Covered Bridge in Conway is currently located. The floating structure acted like a battering ram when it hit the second bridge, sending both on an unwanted voyage of about two miles downstream, They came to rest in an eddy, and were later broken up and salvaged by Berry and Sons to rebuild the Swift River bridge. Now closed to motor traffic, their work still stands soundly as a tribute to their craftsmanship and bridge-building skill.

Four structures have stood where the present Saco River Bridge stands, three of which have been covered bridges. After the flood disaster of 1869, two builders names Allen and Warren of Conway rebuilt a third bridge of all new lumber which stood for 20 years. In 1890 it burned in a fire which engulfed a factory located near the south end of the bridge. A master bridge builder named Frank Broughton built the present 240-foot span in 1890 at a cost of $4,000, using two spans of a Burr-type truss. The bridge underwent substantial repairs in the 1930s, and remains open for traffic.

Broughton supervised the repair work done on the old Smith-Eastman Bridge in 1933 in Redstone when it was saved from demolition. The proud structure had been built in 1845, and was expected to stand at least another 100 years after the repairs were done. As most North Country residents angrily remember, however, the bridge stood for only another 42 years - it burned in July of 1975 of less than natural causes. A memorial plaque now records the history of the 300-foot-long span, once the longest covered bridge over the Saco River.

The bridge was named after lawyer-farmer Joel Eastman and John Smith, two landowners who lived near the site in the mid-1800s. In those days, travelers from Portland on their way north had to trek to the southeast along the Saco and cross the river at Conway. At the Conway Town Meeting, Eastman proposed to build a new road and bridge at the site to shorten the distance by about four miles, but voters rejected the proposal. Eastman wanted the direct route to North Conway, however, and laid out a plan for a new roadway with two neighbors anyway. He then contracted Master Builder Peter Paddleford of Littleton to build a fine new bridge across the river, a job which began in May of 1845 and was completed in August of the same year. As was the custom with covered bridges in those days, users of the bridge expected to pay a toll, but none was charged by the crafty Eastman for a year. Conwayites soon found out why, however, as he announced that the town had accepted his bridge by making constant use of it. The significance of that use was explained to the selectmen, who were told that state laws required that they pay for what they were using. The town consequently paid for the road and the bridge at a cost of some $2,000. The bridge carried iron ore and grist mill goods in the beginning, and was worked even harder when the quarrying of granite began in 1886. Scenically situated and brightly painted white with red trim, the bridge was a popularly photographed landmark prior to its burning 1975.

Jackson, North Conway, and Bartlett had their share of covered bridges over the years as well. A railroad covered bridge once crossed the Saco in North Conway on the B & M line; a "First Bridge" crossed the Saco in North Conway, built in 1875 and torn down in the mid-1940s, and a handsome span once crossed Goodrich Falls in Jackson, built in the 1850s by Helen Nute's grandfather, Leander Nute.

The bridge still standing in Jackson is one of the better preserved structures of its kind in the Northeast, and serves as a picturesque symbol of the charm that typifies the village. Built in 1876 during the nation's Centennial, it was named the Honeymoon Bridge, a title that pays tribute to covered bridges reputation in the old days as appropriate hideouts for bashful young lovers hoping to steal kisses. The 111-foot structure was widened and repaired in 1939, adding a pedestrian walkway on the side for walkers' convenience. The bridge's bright red siding was enhanced in the nation's Bicentennial celebration in 1976 as well, when Jackson residents bedecked the bridge with colorful bunting on its 100th birthday.

In addition to the structure over Goodrich Falls in Jackson, Nute also built the Bartlett Bridge which still crosses over the Saco Rover off Route 302 between Bartlett and Glen. The 183' long structure is listed in some books as being built in 1870 but its builder's granddaughter contends that he would have had to build the bridge in the 1850s prior to his service in the Civil War. No records exist to verity the exact date, however, and consequently all of the dates mentioned are merely estimates. More precise information is known about the bridge's past in this century, however, and records show that the structure was abandoned in the 1930s. It remained dormant over the years, being used by the state and town to store road equipment, and as its condition became worse, rolls of snow fence. The town of Bartlett sold the entire structure to Isabelle and Jules Casinelli in 1966 for the price of one dollar. The Casinelli's owned a house adjacent to the bridge, and wanted to have a small workshop and gift shop to display her needlework and fine fabric articles. The abandoned covered bridge seemed like a logical choice, and their bid of $1.00 won out over others, since they had no intention of moving or substantially altering the architectural integrity of the bridge.

The Casinellis remember the bridge as being in quite poor condition then - bed timber below the truss on the southeast corner was decayed so badly that it was only a pad of humus, and a floor timber caught between the broken end of an inverted arch and a diagonal member of a side truss were all that kept the corner from falling. They contacted Milton S Graton to repair the bridge, a major accomplishment which he finished after 10 months of work in 1966.

Graton and his sons built the small gift shop that stands inside the bridge the following spring, letting the air out of their truck tires in order to pass under the roof supports of the bridge as they towed the small building through the portal. Today, passerbys continue to be enthralled by the charm of the old bridge, and share in the Casinellis' appreciation for the structure.

"When we compare what the bridge looks like now to its former appearance when we bought it," said Isabelle Casinelli," it's very gratifying to know that we've helped to preserve and restore the bridge. People who drop in to see us seem to share our feelings for it as well, and that pleases us. Covered bridges are such a part of our past, that it's only right they they be preserved. We're happy to have been able to contribute to that effort."

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