November is Historic Bridge Awareness Month
November was unofficially declared Historic Bridge Awareness Month in 2006 by HistoricBridges.org. This month was selected by the organization for two reasons 1) it is the anniversary of the demolition of the Shanley Road Bridge and 2) it is a perfect time for reflection since it is the end of construction season and many bridges throughout the country have been torn down or renovated. The Shanley Road Bridge was located over the Clarion River in Elk County, Pennsylvania, and was 113 years old when it was demolished in 2004. Many think of covered bridges when they think of historical bridges; however, the structure, age, materials, and cultural significance all factor into what designates a bridge as historical.
Due to the maintenance of bridges and exposure to weather, wood structures often didn’t last long. The development of covered bridges helped to protect the support structure from the elements, thus ensuring it to last longer than if left exposed. The additional development of metal truss bridges occurred with the transportation boom of the railroads and then vehicles in the mid- 1800s. Both are considered historic, especially as concrete bridges became the standard since they were considered more maintenance-free and long-lived than their metal and wooden counterparts. They were considered old, not historically relevant, and were allowed to fall into disrepair.
It was estimated that at their peak during the second half of the 19th Century, there were over 12,000 covered bridges in the United States, around 500 of them were in the Hoosier State alone. The first was built in Henry County in 1835. There were two major builders in Indiana – J.J. Daniels and Joseph A. Britton from Rockville and the A.M. Kennedy family from Rushville. Combined, they built 158 bridges in Indiana. 100 years after the first covered bridge was built, only 202 remained. Today, that number is 89. 31 of them are in Parke County, the most in Indiana.
Of the several historic bridges in Lake County, one is located in Crown Point. The covered bridge located in the Lake County Fairgrounds was built in 1878 by A.M. Kennedy and Sons. It was originally built over the Little Flatrock River in Rush County. The Burr Arch Truss styled bridge was called the Milroy Covered Bridge. Conflicting sources also refer to this bridge as the Shelhorn Covered Bridge or the Shelbourne/Shelborne Covered Bridge. In 1933, John Wheeler bought the bridge for $25.00 to save it from demolition. The 85 ft. (plus a 10 ft. overhang) bridge was dismantled and rebuilt at its current location with the help of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). At that time, the bridge was also repainted as cream with red trim. The 16 ft. wide, 14 ft. high bridge expands over a gully in the park and can be enjoyed by the foot traffic of those touring the fairgrounds.
Organizations to preserve our transportation heritage exist on state and national levels. The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, the National Center for Wood Transportation Structures, plus others raise awareness and money for preservation. The Indiana Covered Bridge Society works to preserve and restore this part of our heritage. State and local governments are recognizing the significance of these structures and are including maintenance costs in their budgets. Many bridges are included on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to these measures, there is a certain sense of nostalgia that comes with older bridges and appeals to the folklore of the past.
Next time you are traveling, take notice of the bridges you cross. Were they around 50 or 100 years ago? Will they be here in the next century too?