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Covered Bridges

By Ben Crookshanks

Covered bridges are picturesque and romantic reminders of a simpler time.Why were they covered? Why go to the extra trouble and expense? Two reasons: 1) Wood is remarkably durable if protected from the elements. It was much easier to maintain a roof than replace the wooden deck and underlying timbers. 2) Many horses are skittish and balky about crossing a bridge when they can see moving water. On the other hand they have no fear of walking through a structure that looks like a barn.The bridges were not covered, as many assume, to keep snow off the deck. On the contrary, records show that owners of toll bridges hauled snow and shoveled it onto the deck, creating a slick surface, enabling sleds to glide across.

During the 19th-century, over 10,000 covered bridges were built; less than 900 survive. As late as 1947, there were still 89 covered bridges in West Virginia. Today, only 17 remain. All have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Four of the bridges are in southern West Virginia and within an easy drive of Oak Hill, WV. The oldest and most famous bridge in the state is a little farther away. It spans the Tygert River at Philippi in northern West Virginia. It is 285 feet long and is one of only six two-lane bridges still in existence in the United States.

Lemuel Chenoweth, a brilliant, but largely self-educated carpenter and cabinetmaker was awarded the contract to build the bridge in 1850.

Competition was stiff. Several engineers, some of them from abroad, were after the contract. Chenoweth was the last to make a presentation. After he had assembled his bridge, members of the Board looked at it and scoffed. This touched his pride. He took two chairs, suspended the model between them, then stood in the middle of it and challenged the others to do the same with theirs. Chenoweth got the contract. The bridge was completed in late 1852.

On June 3, 1861, the area around the Philippi Bridge was the site of the first land battle of the Civil War. Compared with the rest of the war, this battle would seem insignificant. There were only three casualties and no one was killed.

Two of the casualties were leg wounds which required amputation, the first of many thousands which would be performed in the next four years. One of the amputees was 19-year-old James E. Hanger, a student from Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) at Lexington, Virginia. He had arrived in Philippi on June 1. In the early hours of June 3, he was standing guard at the stable when shots rang out. He went inside to saddle a horse, intending to ride to the gunfire. A solid six-pound cannonball ricocheted and came through the stable shattering his left leg near the knee joint. He was captured and turned over to a Union surgeon who amputated his leg-the first of the war. In August, he was sent home in a prisoner exchange.

While recovering, he fashioned himself an artificial leg out of barrel staves. He began making wooden legs for other amputees. As the number of casualties mounted, Hanger was commissioned by the Confederate government to manufacture artificial limbs. When he passed away in 1919, his company had branches in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Paris and London. Today, the J.E. Hanger Company is the largest manufacturer of prosthetic devices in the world.

On February 2, 1989, a freak accident nearly destroyed the Philippi Bridge. A gasoline truck was filling the tanks of a nearby service station. After the tanks were full, the truck, for some reason, continued pumping. An estimated 1,500 gallons of fuel spilled onto the ground and flowed onto the bridge deck. Motorists, unaware of the danger, continued driving through what they assumed was water. The inevitable happened-a catalytic converter ignited the gasoline. Within a matter of minutes, a great deal of the roof and siding were gone and the main structure charred.

Because of the bridge’s historical significance, the state decided to immediately begin rebuilding it. West Virginia University, through the Institute for History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology, coordinated the restoration. A good many of the timbers were just lightly charred, some only blackened by smoke and, therefore, still sound and serviceable. While removing the charred wood, several Civil War Minie balls were recovered-physical evidence the battle had occurred.

Through the years, various repairs and modifications had been make to the bride, altering its appearance. During the restoration, every effort was made to return the old bridge to the way it looked in 1861. When finished, once again it had a red, wooden-shingle rood, white horizontal siding and double curved arches on the portals. To lessen the chance of another fire, there was one concession to modern technology. A sprinkling system was discreetly added.

Restoration was completed in time for the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Philippi-June 3, 1991.

Two of the four bridges in southern West Virginia are in Monroe County and two in Greenbrier County. Three of them are over 100 years old and all four have recently undergone restoration.

The Indian Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed structures in West Virginia. It is located on U.S. Route 219, 6 miles south of Union in Monroe County, opposite St. John’s Church. The bridge, built in 1903, is 49 ft. long.

The Laurel Creek Bridge, at 24 ft., 5 in., is the shortest bridge in the state. From the Indian Creek Bridge go north on Rt. 219 to Secondary 219/7 and turn left to Lillydale. Then turn right on 219/11 through Lillydale to the bridge.

The Herns Mill Bridge is a very short drive from Lewisburg. Go west on U.S. Route 60 approximately 2.6 miles. Turn left onto Secondary 60/11, then left onto Secondary 40 for 2.2 miles. Although the sign on the bridge says it was built in 1879, records indicate it was built in 1884.

The Hokes Mill Bridge is the longest of the four-81 ft., 6 in. This bridge is in Greenbrier County very near the Monroe County line. From Ronceverte, take 219 south to Secondary 48. Turn right and travel approximately 3.6 miles to Secondary 62. Proceed south on 62 to the bridge.