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Covered Bridges of Cheshire County

If you pass along a quiet New England road in fall and come upon what appears to be someone's misplaced home, you're tempted to recall the romantic version of the origin of covered bridges... They, of course, were built for discretely kissing your favorite girl while on a long buggy ride home from church.

One resists the more practical reason nineteenth-century artisans walled-up the sides and placed a roof over the way across the river. The purpose is lost on us because we have huge, steel structural I-beams and have developed the technology to plow the snow from our roads and bridges using 5-ton trucks pushing massive steel blades. In 1830, wheeled-conveyances were stored away in winter and replaced by sleighs and lone beasts. The road agents of the day used large barrel-like vehicles to roll the snow flat and hard. This caused a problem for the bridges, of course, because they were built of wooden timbers and couldn't support the weight of a long winter's snow.

Karl Johnson of Groton, Mass., a photographer and producer of Covered Bridge calendars, wrote:

"Covered bridges were not invented in New England, but had been used on a limited basis in Central Europe for several hundred years. The ingenuity of five New Englanders, however, launched a whole new era in bridge construction.

"In the late 1700's, America was growing. Rivers were a major obstacle to communication and land transportation. Bridges were needed for commerce, but deep water and spring floods made low, piling-supported bridges impractical.

"About this time, Timothy Palmer of Newburyport and Theodore Burr of Torringford, Conn. adapted European designs and became the first successful builders of large wooden truss bridges in America. Both these men were self-taught craftsmen who built many covered bridges all over the northeast. Old growth forests provided an abundant supply of large timbers.

"Once the viability of large wooden bridges was proven, towns, toll-bridge companies and railroads began building them. By the early 1800's, contractors were competing for a boom in bridge building.

"Ithiel Town of New Haven, Conn., Stephen Long of Hopkinton, NH and William Howe of Spencer, Mass. came up with new truss designs that were easier to build than Palmer's or Burr's designs. All three patented and then franchised their designs to builders who used them all across America.

"Even with proven designs, bridge building was as much art as science. Builders were ingenious, skilled craftsmen with little formal education. They drew on their training from master craftsmen and their own experience. They knew the characteristics of the materials they worked with.-not only how to cut and shape the timbers, but what the load bearing strength was. If there is such a thing as folk engineering, this was it.

"For me, the most fascinating aspect of New England covered bridges is the superb craftsmanship. Because a wooden truss bridge's strength comes from being under constant compression. Every timber and joint in the frame must fit precisely to evenly distribute the load. A typical 100-foot lattice type bridge could have almost a thousand hand-cut, hand-pegged joints.

"That wooden covered bridges built over a hundred and fifty years ago are still in service is a testimonial to their design and the craftsmanship with which they were built. With good supervision and maintenance many of these should last for years to come."

But this site is dedicated first to a particular bridge that was burned by an arsonist in the night on March 8, 1993.

The Slate Bridge of Swanzey, located in the Southwestern part of New Hampshire, spans the Ashuelot River near Westport Village just off Rt. 10 .

Judy Carey, who lives near the site, discovered the fire and called firefighters who arrived at 2:30 a.m.

"We had just opened up the hoses when the bridge cracked in half and fell in."...West Swanzey Firefighter Gerald A. Bussiere.Slate Covered Bridge

"The bridge was fully engulfed in flames when we got there. There wasn't a lot we could do."...Swanzey Fire Chief Jeffrey A. Hurt.

It was a lattice truss style bridge built in 1862 for $1,850.64.

The bridge was 142'-3" long and 20'-9" wide with a roadway width of 17'-1" and a maximum clearance of 11'-6". Reinforced by four iron turn buckle rods, it was posted for 6 tons by the state department of transportation.

Built with a design developed by Ithiel Town, it remained an excellent example of Town lattice and iron turn-buckle craftsmanship and was one of four covered bridges in Swanzey before being destroyed.

Slate Bridge beforeThe bridge name originates from the Slate family who lived on a farm along the river north of the bridge. It was the second bridge on that location, the first having been built around 1800. But, in 1842, William Wheelock was halfway across the earlier bridge with a span of four oxen when it collapsed, dropping both driver and animals into the river below. Although there were no injuries, Mr. Wheelock hired an attorney from Keene and sought damages from the town. Some things in life are eternal.

Through the tireless efforts and steadfast leadership of Francis and Lynda Faulkner, and the committee of townspeople they established, the Slate bridge was rebuilt in 2000.

The Slate Bridge is listed as New Hampshire Bridge #4 on the National Register of Historic Places. It's World Guide Number is 29-03-06.

CARLTON #7, Swanzey Center.

This Covered bridge is one of the oldest in New Hampshire, although it's exact date of construction is not known. It's 60 feet long by 14 feet wide, and crosses the South Branch of the Ashuelot River. It was completely reconstructed and reopened in 1997.

Directions: One mile south of Swanzey Center on NH route #32. Keep an eye out for a "Covered Bridge" sign. Take a left on Carlton Road. The bridge is only a few hundred feet up the road.

Cresson covered bridgeCRESSON, Sawyers Crossing #6, near Swanzey Center.

The picture at right is the Cresson Bridge in Swanzey Center (Courtesy of Arthur Bouffard). It's a 2 span, "Town Lattice" bridge of 159 foot length and 17 foot width. It has a center pier and spans the Ashuelot River, and was built in 1859 at a cost of $1,735.64. It replaced a bridge built in 1812. A bridge dance was held to commemorate its completion. According to Suzanne Bergeron Whittemore's "In The Shadow Of Monadnock","The bridge was lighted by lanterns while musicians set up at one end of the bridge, and dancers arrived with baskets of food.

Stepping lively to quadrilles, reels and contras, the dancers carried on until dawn."

Directions: From Keene, south on NH Rt. 10. just before crossing into Swanzey on your left take Matthews Road. Follow Matthews Rd. to the end, bridge is on left.

Thompson covered bridgeTHOMPSON, West Swanzey #5

At right is an 1880's view of the Thompson Bridge (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Cheshire County), which crosses the Ashuelot River in the village of West Swanzey. Both the Cresson and Thompson bridges were recently repaired to stand modern traffic.Thompson covered bridgeIn the midst of West Swanzey Village is the "Thompson" bridge. Painted red with white trim, this "Town Lattice" truss once had two sidewalks, but now has only one. It has 2 spans across the Ashuelot River with a length of 155 feet.

Originally built in 1832 at a cost of $523.27 by Zodoc Taft.

Directions: Route 10 South, out of Keene. Approx 3.5 miles once you cross into Swanzey, on your left. Look for the "Covered Bridge" sign.

Other Covered Bridges Sites
 Keene, N.H. Bridges
Winchester, N.H. Bridges
Langdon, N.H. Bridges
New Hampshire
 New York State

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