When the Great Master Planner set about the landscape plan for what would become northern New England, he sent massive glaciers south to carve deep valleys and granite summits along its spine, raising in the process a mountain range whose time-worn summits today are older than the Alps and were once just as grand. The word Vermont literally means “Green Mountains” and those forest-bound valleys gathered the waters which flowed year-round from the rains and snowfall which fell in generous, even mighty, abundance. When the first European settlers braved the challenges of a new land, the water-power of those rivers, creeks, brooks and streams became both blessing and challenge as first wagon roads and then highways of commerce sought to traverse their winding and wandering courses.
The first bridge-builders soon discovered that just as buildings could not long endure without a sound roof to protect the most carefully-crafted timber structures, the bridges they built soon surrendered to unforgiving climate and weather. The oldest of Vermont’s 100 surviving and still-active covered bridges is probably the “Pulpmill Bridge” crossing Otter Creek near the town of Middlebury, a rare “double-lane” bridge thought to date back to 1802 or 1804. Like the 200 or more which once crisscrossed Vermont, it meets the definition of a “true” covered bridge, in that it is constructed by a series of interlocking “trusses” rather than straight “stringers”. The real covered bridge aficionado is well acquainted with terms such as “Queenpost”, “Kingpost”, “Long” and “Burr truss” construction techniques, as well as the names of the enterprising builders who invented and even patented them.
And then there are covered bridge “pilgrims” such as I, motivated by the romance and sheer iconology of the pursuit, for whom treading the planks of these stubborn survivors of an earlier time is like walking beneath the knave of a famous cathedral. I have waited at night in the shadows of at least one or two “haunted” bridges under a full moon, pictured horse-drawn wagons delaying their way through a “kissing” bridge, and wondered if I could still hear the hoof-beats of a “highwayman” who waited for travelers to be robbed on yet another. Stories of a suicide tryst, runaway stage coach accidents, wedding ceremonies and murder mysteries all await the investigator on the lookout for anecdotes and something unusual; after all, a man-made structure which has outlived generations of travelers who have passed that way has its own stories to tell.
In Northfield Falls, I have found the only place in America where one can see and photograph two covered bridges at one time, and I have admired an Otter Creek bridge which was washed off its base and floated two miles downstream in the flood of 1927, only to be towed back and re-anchored in its former position afterward. Vermonters love their covered bridges, and every town somehow manages to fund and carry out needed repairs year after year – even in hard times. It says something that the state’s newest covered bridge was built in 1969 by the town of Woodstock, whose city fathers didn’t want to be outdone by anyone!
If I had to pick a personal favorite, “The Bridge at the Green” in West Arlington, where it crosses the fabled Battenkill” river – the virtual birthplace of American fly-fishing – would be it. Built in 1851, it stands within eyesight of Norman Rockwell’s long-time residence and studio. We usually pack a picnic lunch for our annual visit.
Another “regular” on our list is the double-span Taftsville Bridge, spanning a picturesque set of waterfalls on the Ottauquechee river. Measuring 190 feet in all, it was built by Solomon Emmons in 1836.
A walk through the Taftsville structure exposes the visitor to a true one-of-a-kind hybrid, combining three different truss designs plus a laminated arch found nowhere else.
Standing in a lovely and lonely location near the town of Hartland, the 1881 Martins Mill Bridge over Lull’s Brook is typical in its simple and enduring Town Lattice design. The sounds of tumbling water from an ancient weir and birdsong add to an early autumn setting.
Woolen mills once made use of the waterpower supplied by the Ompompanoosuc River near Thetford, where a covered bridge such as this one might once have involved a toll charge, to say nothing of a 2 mph speed limit for horses!
Note: Tropical Storm “Irene” in 2011, did considerable damage to Vermont’s cherished covered bridges including several pictured in this article, and repairs are still under way.