You see them on calendars and celebrated in paintings… the covered bridges of Vermont. But what is their history, the purpose of the roof, and why do they exist even today?
Timber, as a building material, has always been the first choice in forested regions of the world. It is easy to acquire, easy to work with even simple hand tools, and when properly protected, will last for years. Covering the bridge extends its life dramatically. Left uncovered, a wooden bridge will last about 15 years. Covered and properly cared for, it will last almost forever. There are covered bridges in Switzerland that have survived since the 1500s.
The History of Covered Bridges in the United States, by Lola Bennett, tells us, “Col. Enoch Hale took a bold first step in advancing American timber-bridge building in 1785 when he erected the nation’s first long-span framed timber bridge across the Connecticut River between Walpole, New Hampshire, and Bellows Falls, Vermont.” However, truss-based engineering proved to be a better solution for long-span bridges and became the trend after Timothy Palmer’s 1805 design. As the nation grew, so did the number of covered bridges to support transportation of goods through the growing country. In New England, peak building began around 1810 and lasted for about 100 years. Eventually, the use of iron supplanted wood as a building material due to its strength and durability.
Most covered bridges are painted red for a very practical reason. The pigment used was inexpensive to produce comprised of skim milk, buttermilk or whey, slaked lime, flaxseed oil, turpentine and pulverized ochre. Protecting the wood extended the life of the exposed areas from sun, wind, and moisture.
Some might think one of the reasons bridges are roofed in New England is to protect them from the winter snow. In actual fact, when it snowed, sleighs took the place of wheeled wagons since the roads were not plowed in those days. Snow was actually shoveled onto the bridge surface to facilitate sleigh travel.
Today Vermont has over 100 covered bridges remaining, most still capable of handling motorized traffic. Check this handy map to find bridges in your area. And if you just can’t get enough, a visit to the Covered Bridge Museum (at The Bennington Center for the Arts) in Bennington offers exhibits on engineering, construction, tools and creators of covered bridges. There is even an interactive kiosk to help you plan your tour of Vermont’s bridges, five of which are nearby.
So, next trip to Vermont, why not take in some of these marvelous historic structures and shoot some memorable photos of your own. Check Vermont.com’s lodging pages to help you plan your trip.