A Catskill Catalog: Dec. 16, 2009
A photo of an old-fashioned covered bridge, snow covered, with, maybe, a wreath over its portal, and, perhaps a horse-drawn surrey or sleigh about to cross: a holiday greeting card!
No better place to take that photograph than here in the Catskills. The Web site coveredbridgesite.com lists 47 covered bridges in New York State. Eighteen of them are in the four-county Catskill Region: Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster. Add Schoharie County to the mix, and the number rises to 20.
That’s over one-third, almost one-half, of the state’s covered bridges right close to home.
Covered bridge aficionados divide their beloved bridges into three categories: authentic, historic, and other. Authentic covered bridges are “covered timber truss bridges built in a previous era, for functional use on public highways.” Historic bridges are “authentic reproductions of historic covered bridges.” The Other category “includes bridges made of materials other than timber, or a timber bridge which is not a truss or arch.”
Timber was, of course, the most abundant and readily available building material throughout the 19th Century. The truss design - a framework of beams fashioned in a series of interconnected triangles - was strong and stable. Side-wall sheathing and shingled roofs protected the bridge structure and decking from the weather. This made maintenance easier.
Thus, the covered bridge. Between 1800 and 1912, hundreds of covered bridges were built to carry the full weight of road traffic over brooks, creeks, streams, and rivers. Those that still stand, today, carry the additional weight of heritage and history. They carry our imaginations across the centuries to a seemingly simpler time. Hence, the greeting card.
The Downsville Covered Bridge crosses the East Branch of the Delaware River, a few hundred yards below the dam that forms the Pepacton Reservoir. Built in 1854, rehabilitated and refurbished in 1998, the bridge carries road traffic 174 feet across, connecting the Back River Road to Route 30.
Over in Delhi, Fitch’s Bridge is still in service, carrying Fitch’s Bridge Road over the West Branch of the Delaware, connecting Route 10 to county Route 18, that town’s Back River Road. This latticework bridge was built in 1870 and rehabilitated in 2002.
Downstream on the West Branch is the Hamden Bridge, six miles southwest of Delhi, carrying Basin Clove Road over the river to connect with Route 10. This 125-foot long truss bridge was built in 1859 and rehabilitated in 2001.
Covered bridge enthusiasts love photos of the bridges taken before 21st Century structural rehabilitation. Seems more historic. Drivers like to know that these 19th-Century engineering marvels have been recently rehabilitated. Seems safer.
Some covered bridges are even new. The Pine Hill Covered Bridge, at the entrance to the Belleayre Mountain Day Use Area, carries park-goers 72 feet across Birch Creek. Pine Hill Bridge is placed in the Other category because it is something of an imposter: a precast concrete and steel composite bridge system dressed up in laminated timber beams, timber planks, and roof shingles.
Covered bridges were a special focus of the work of artist Ward Hermann, who made a prominent regional name for himself with his precise and nostalgic renderings of historic Delaware County covered bridges in quality prints, acrylics, and pen and ink drawings. Formerly of Delhi, Mr. Hermann now lives with his daughter and son-in-law in Waco, Texas.
One of his prints is of the Beaverkill Covered Bridge, located in the Beaverkill State Campground down through the Barkaboon, southwest of Lew Beach. (Hermann’s prints are available on the web at www.wardhermann.com).
Taken out of service in 1997, this 98-foot-long, 1865 covered bridge provides a romantic backdrop to the many summer campers and swimmers who frolic in the stream below it.
Perrine Bridge is the covered bridge you’ve passed on the right-hand side of the thruway traveling north, just past the New Paltz exit. Located in Ulster County’s Rifton, that 154-foot-long, single span bridge across the Wallkill River has, for some time, been out of service. Built in 1844, Perrine Bridge was restored in 1993, strictly as an historic treasure.
For 25 years after it came out of service in the mid-60s, another historic treasure, Grant Mills Bridge in Arena, up Millbrook, sat on the side of the road, abandoned, debilitating, sullen and forlorn. Folks would talk about doing something about fixing-up the not-so-slowly rotting bridge. I did a little talking, myself. Only talking.
Then somebody actually did it! In 1992, Bob Vredenburgh, great-grandson of the original builders, led a team of volunteers who completely rehabilitated Grant Mills Bridge. Community donations and grants covered the $13,000 cost. Regular folks who cared about the bridge did the work.
Today, It’s a 66-foot-long, single-span gem, one of no fewer than six existing historic-authentic covered bridges in the Dry Brook/Millbrook valleys. A couple are on private property, but others are readily visible as sightseeing quarry on what they used to call a Sunday drive.