Whenever I travel, I pay special attention to structures of historical significance. To my dismay, many are dilapidated and often beyond repair.
To a Williamsburg resident who is surrounded by carefully maintained relics of history, those are painful sights. Occasionally, however, I find a place where the local community is paying attention to a symbol that links it with the past.
A case in point is the covered bridge in the town of Jay.
The covered bridge in Jay ... before it was redone
At the turn of the 20th century there were about 10,000 covered bridges in the United States. Fewer than 900 of them remain standing today. One of them happens to be in Jay. It was serving as a major river crossing of the local area for some 130 years, but was scheduled for demolition.
It was saved and restored because the local community sensed that loosing it would mean to part with the "symbol of our link with the past."
The covered bridge has always been a reminder of a time when there was much commercial activity in Jay. Iron forges, milling, a cheese factory and other small industrial enterprises were turning out goods. The covered bridge was the link with the outside world in the horse and buggy days.
Old town records that were discovered revealed that the Jay's covered bridge was built by George Burt of AuSable Forks in 1857. With a length of 240 ft. it was one of the longest of all covered bridges in New York state. It held up to five tons.
According to the financial records, the total cost of building the bridge was $2,373.15, including $216 paid to Luke and William Smith for covering the bridge. The bridge was constructed entirely of timber, with the exception of the iron tension rods. Some of the timber was 50 by 14 ft., and George Burt charged $1,25 a day for searching for suitable timber.
Covered bridges have been in existence in America since early colonial times. The first American patent for a covered bridge was issued in 1797 to Charles Peale, the portrait painter of George Washington. He became interested in designing a bridge which would be shielded from the elements.
Although Vermont is known as a state with most of the covered bridges, in fact, Pennsylvania, with 230 covered bridges, is the front-runner. New York has about 30, and Virginia, only a handful.
People often wonder why early American bridges were built of wood. But two centuries ago almost everything was made of wood. The workmanship needed to build a covered bridge was usually available in the community, and the craftsmanship was such that during repairs, 100 years later, the joints looked nice and white in their protective housing.
Buffeted by increasing motor vehicle traffic, many covered bridges couldn't take the strain. The story of the Jay bridge is an example. In 1953 a heavily loaded truck went through the floor. The covered bridge was repaired and concrete abutments and a concrete island was built under the bridge. It was reinforced by steel pillars and beams. The cost was $20,000, almost 10 times more than the 1857 building cost.
Another accident involving a heavily loaded truck, convinced county and state officials to question the safety of the covered bridge in Jay. The initial plan was to demolish the covered bridge, and replace it with a concrete one. But soon a new concept, championed by locals, emerged. The new bridge to span the AuSable River was to be built 600 ft. upstream, and the old covered bridge will be restored. It will be open only to pedestrians and serve as an interpretive exhibit. The plan was accepted.
The rehabilitation of the covered bridge was completed in 2007. It is now listed on the National Registry, and is part of a historic district. Surrounded by a river-front park, extending from the covered bridge to the new concrete one, it is not just a "link with the past," but also a tourist attraction.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was
reprinted with permission
from The Virginia Gazette.