Over the river and through the wood,
to Grandmother’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,
through the white and drifted snow.
When we sang that ditty in grammar school at Thanksgiving time, our imaginary sleigh surely crossed that river on a covered bridge. Snow had been shoveled onto its deck for the sleigh runners to slide over, for the bridge wasn’t covered to keep off snow. It was covered to protect it from the weathering effects of sun and rain. An uncovered bridge might last 20 years. With proper upkeep, a covered bridge could last more than a century.
The song “Over the River and Through the Wood” was adapted from a poem written by Lydia Maria Child and published in 1844, during the heyday of covered bridges. Nearly 14,000 wooden covered bridges once spanned the rivers and streams of the United States. Most were built in the mid-1800s in rural areas from east to west and north to south.
Fewer than 900 of those historic covered bridges are still standing, and now and then another is lost to fire or flood. That even that many are left is due to the dedicated efforts of private groups and governments across the country to preserve, restore, and maintain them.
Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Vermont account for well over half of the historic covered bridges in the United States. Pennsylvania has the most, more than 200. Maryland, which once had many dozens of them, now has only six. One is northeast of Baltimore, and two more are near the far northeastern corner of the state. Three reside just north of the city of Frederick.
A Covered Bridge Excursion
It had been decades since Sue and I visited those three covered bridges in nearby Frederick County. So on an overcast Saturday morning in October, we decided to take a drive into the countryside and search them out again.
We followed the directions on a county brochure; the information is also available on the Frederick County website. Utica Mills Covered Bridge is a few miles north of Frederick just off Old Frederick Road. Loy’s Station Covered Bridge is 6.7 miles farther north. Roddy Road Covered Bridge is northeast of Thurmont, another 4.2 miles away.
The modest distances between them makes cycling from bridge to bridge popular. Indeed, we encountered many bicyclists—solo riders, pairs, small groups, and one big swarm. Just after as we were about to leave Utica Mills, a large troop of motorcyclists also pulled up. They trailed us the rest of the way, arriving with a roar at each bridge just a few minutes after we did. We thought we would escape weekend crowds by driving far out into the countryside. We were wrong.
Different Structural Designs
At first glance, the three bridges look a lot alike. They are all painted red, of modest length, and have similar exterior styles. However, they offer an almost textbook lesson in covered bridge structural design. Covered bridges exhibit many different styles of trusses, the structures that support the bridges. These three bridges have three different truss designs, each a step up in complexity.
The Roddy Road Bridge has the oldest and simplest design, called a Kingpost truss, used on short bridges. Loy’s Station Bridge expands on that basic design. Its Multiple Kingpost truss is used on bridges of moderate length, up to about 100 feet. The Utica Mills Covered Bridge adds an arch to the Multiple King Post design to create a Burr Arch, one of the most frequently used truss systems. The illustrations below show that design progression.
For much more detail on each bridge from the Maryland Covered Bridges website, click on the titles below.
At just under 40 feet, the Roddy Road Bridge is the shortest of the three bridges, and the shortest in Maryland. The original bridge was probably built in 1856 (construction dates of some covered bridges are subject to dispute). It was heavily damaged by an oversize truck in 2016 and dismantled. Its wood was deemed unusable, so the bridge was reconstructed from new materials. Thus, this bridge is a replica, although the county brochure doesn’t mention that.
Loy’s Station Bridge, at 90 feet, is the second longest of the three (the brochure misstates that it’s the longest). The original bridge, built in 1848, also met an untimely demise. In 1991, as part of an insurance fraud scheme, a pickup truck was parked on the bridge and set ablaze, largely destroying the historic structure. Some of the original hardware, rafters, and braces were salvaged and reused in the reconstructed bridge, which was completed in 1994.
The longest of the three bridges, the 101-foot Utica Mills Bridge was actually part of a longer 250-foot bridge, built in either 1850 or 1843, that spanned the nearby Monocacy River. That bridge was destroyed by the disastrous flood of 1889, which also devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when an earthen dam upstream from the city failed. The surviving section of the two-span bridge was dismantled and reconstructed here two years later.
Like most surviving covered bridges, the Utica Mills Bridge has undergone repair and rehabilitation several times. I noticed as I walked through the bridge that its upright posts are notched below the arch in such a way that it looks like the arch was repositioned at some point, perhaps when the bridge was reconstructed.
Like steam trains and lighthouses, covered bridges evoke nostalgia for a rosily idyllic, romanticized past. Irresistibly picturesque, covered bridges draw people from all over, who go way out their way to photograph them, walk their thick planks, admire their sturdy, handcrafted construction, and lay their hands on history. The fact that some are to varying degrees replicas of original bridges doesn’t detract from their timeless charm.
One of these days, I’ll go on a hunt for Maryland’s other three covered bridges. But next time I’ll go during the week.
For more information:
Maryland Covered Bridges
National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges
David Romanowski, 2020