The Un-Covered Bridge in Vermont

Forward by the author:

Imagine this scenario with a historic bridge in general. You have a multi-span structure spanning a ravine for more than 150 years. In European standards it would be common as we have various covered and arch bridges that date as far back as the 1700s (and even further). In American standards, it is rare to find these relicts anywhere with the exception of the areas along the East Coast in the form of covered and arch bridges, namely because that area was occupied by the settlers first before the westward expansion started. Anyway, this 150 year old historic bridge is a covered bridge resembling something like this one below:

Historic American Engineer’s Record

Yet a major storm destroys half the structure and you are left with the task of rebuilding that half of the bridge, realizing that: 1. the structure will not look the same as before, and 2. there is a possibility that another bridge type would take its place instead of having the covered span, like this one:

Photo taken by Kaitlin O’shea

There are many examples of bridges that fall into one category or the other, with a couple more set to follow in the coming year. This includes the reconstruction of the Sutliff Bridge in Iowa, where the eastern most span, which was destroyed by flooding in 2008- will be rebuilt but usingriveted connections instead of pinned connections, like the other two spans.

But suppose, by looking at the picture above that one half of the span was not destroyed but instead was in the midst of being reconstructed, and therefore receiving the nickname, the un-covered bridge because of the arches that were supposed to support the trusses but instead is just sitting there with its future on the line….

There is an explanation to this rather unique appearance, which can only be given by the person who has been there to see the bridge. Kaitlin O’shea of Preservation in Pink, a website devoted to the preservation of historic places in her home state of Vermont and elsewhere, wrote a short article about this bridge awhile back and has taken up the offer to explain about the Un-covered Bridge as a guest columnist for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. Here is her story on this bridge, where it is located and what the plans are for restoring it for future use….


The Un-Covered Bridge
By Kaitlin O’Shea
The Taftsville Covered Bridge spans the Ottaquechee River in Taftsville (Woodstock), Vermont. Designed and constructed in 1836 by Solomon Emmons III, this two-span, modified multiple kingpost truss with semi-independent arch is a rare example of early craftsman tradition; it does not reflect influences from any of the bridge patent patterns available at the time. Its design is considered somewhat unorthodox for American construction, though possibly influenced by Swiss designs. HAER documentation identifies the current covered bridge as the fourth Taftsville bridge in this location.  The original bridge was built in the late 18th century in order to serve the thriving settlements on both banks of the Ottaquechee, including a power plant, gristmill, chair factory, brickyard, blacksmith, tannery and slaughterhouse. After floods washed out the first bridges, the town likely needed a stronger bridge, which led to Emmons’ design and construction.

Entrance to the bridge. Historic American Engineer’s Record

Since its construction there have been repairs and alterations, such as the arches, which were added in the early 20th century; exact reasons remain unknown. Substantial rehabilitation occurred in the early 1950s.  A multi-million dollar restoration project for the Taftsville Covered Bridge was programmed into the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s project schedule and on track to begin in 2012. However, the August 28, 2011 flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene that hammered much of the State of Vermont changed project plans.
Windsor County, where Taftsville is located, was one of the five hardest hit counties in Vermont (which has 14 counties). While the Taftsville Covered Bridge did not suffer the fate of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge, which was destroyed when it was washed off its abutments, it still saw incredible damage.
Following the flooding, the bridge was closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Inspections in the upcoming weeks revealed a failing western abutment (Route 4 side of the bridge), to the extent that it threatened the stability of the bridge. The stone abutment faced an unsecure earthen riverbank, and material had washed downstream with the floodwaters. As a result the timber arch slipped and threatened to be unable to support the bridge until restoration. In addition, the central pier was damaged during the flood.

Close-up of the damaged piers and the undermining of the arches. Photo taken by Kaitlin O’shea, used with permission

In order to stabilize the bridge before winter began (even though winter barely showed in Vermont this year), the Vermont Agency of Transportation carried out a strengthening and lightening plan. In other words: strengthen the arches with tension rods, and remove the dead load: the siding, deck, and distribution beams – essentially, everything except the arches.  The abutment that remains and the central pier are strong enough to support one full span and one light span. The benefit to this method is that the entire bridge does not have to be removed, which saves additional work and keeps the bridge in everyone’s sights. A creative stabilization plan was necessary at this location due to several obstacles including an adjacent power plant and low power lines, which would inhibit the entrance of construction equipment and vehicles.
And that is how Taftsville became the Un-Covered Bridge. A restoration plan is still on track for the Taftsville Covered Bridge, though it may be a total of two years before the bridge is open to traffic.

West abutment, arch, and the rest of the bridge. Photo taken by Kaitlin O’shea, used with permission


Note about the guest columnist:

Kaitlin O’Shea is a historic preservationist by education, profession and avocation. She is currently a Historic Preservation Specialist with the State of Vermont, and previously an oral history project manager in North Carolina. Kaitlin has been writing Preservation in Pink since 2007, when she realized just how much she missed the caffeinated conversations and company of her preservation colleagues. What began as a preservation newsletter evolved to the daily blog that discusses historic preservation on all fronts, aiming to present subjects as approachable and applicable to everyone, no matter what his/her background.

The author would like to thank her for the use of her photos. They were taken in September 2011 and March 2012 respectively with her iPhone, and contrary to her opinion about the photos, they came out well on this column.



Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge to be rehabbed. A step in the right direction for preserving Pennsylvania’s (remaining) historic bridges?

There is an old saying that was mentioned many years ago by British author Kazuo Ishiguro which stated that in order to be successful, one has to work within his own boundaries and with the resources that he has at his disposal. Some of the themes used in his novels- the most popular was of course “The Remains of the Day” (published in 1989)- have something to do with trying to go beyond one’s own limits only to meet failure and later regret some years later and eventually, these self-made tragedies are usually served as a lesson for future generations and those who have yet to experience life and know that there are limits to what one is doing.

I wish I can say the same for the governmental agencies and their dealings with historic bridges, for up to now, whenever a historic bridge that has a unique appearance which people can relate to is considered obsolete, they would successfully find ways to destroy them in favor of modernized structures with a very bland feature. We have already seen the demise of the Bridgeport and Fort Steuben Bridges in the Wheeling (West Virginia) area within the last nine months. The Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad Bridge over the Minnesota River in the village of Carver, located southwest of Chaska, was removed upon orders of the Union Pacific Railroad in October 2011 despite pleas from the villagers and those interested in preserving a bridge. And perhaps the latest act of stupidity among the agency is replacing the Dolles Mill Bridge in Bollinger County (Missouri) with a concrete slab bridge that is narrower than the Parker through truss bridge built in 1913.

So it definitely came to a surprise that the Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge, located over the Ohio River near Ambridge would actually be spared demolition despite being 85 years old and quite a narrow bridge fitting today’s standards. Built in 1927 by the American Bridge Company, the bridge is located in Beaver County, approximately 80 kilometers south-southwest of Pittsburgh, but still deep in the territory of western Pennsylvania.  Up to now, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation played a role of the wrecking ball in influencing decisions to demolish these bridges, destroying as much as 60% of its bridges within the past decade. This included the Foxburg, West Hickory, Venango and East Brady Bridges. Yet despite its bad track record, plus further plans to replace more historic bridges in and around the Pittsburgh area this year, there seems to be a change of heart, or so it seems, with this bridge.

I had a chance to visit this bridge during my tour of the region in 2010 and was quite impressed with its history and appearance. The bridge is a cantilever truss bridge using a Pratt design, and it was built using pinned connections, meaning the parts are put together via bolts and eyelets. The bridge features Howe lattice portal and strut bracings and finials on each of the four cantilever towers of the bridge, all shaped in a form of a curved pyramid.  The bridge’s east approach spans the Ohio River Boulevard and a couple abandoned rail lines before making its was across the Ohio River. After reaching the bank, the two Warren pony truss spans crosses the Norfolk Southern Railway before the road terminates at Constitution Boulevard on the west end of the river.  Its aqua green color gives the bridge an impressive look, and the people of Ambridge have used the bridge as part of their marketing strategy to bring more people and business to the community of 7,800 inhabitants. Interesting enough, Ambridge was incorporated by the American Bridge Company in 1905, by converging neighboring Legionville with the remnants of the village of Economy, which was founded in 1824 by the Harmony Society. The bridge building company was located here and was the main anchor of business in the city as steel mills drew in thousands of residents, looking for work and a place to start their lives. By 1940, the population had reached 18,968 before the steel mills shut down and many people left the community.  While the steel mills no longer exist, the city has preserved much of its business district and is now a main source of tourism. There is hope that the bridge will become part of that heritage once the rehabilitation work is completed.

I spent over an hour at the bridge and saw some bridge inspectors there, looking at the state of the bridge and making some notes and perhaps some recommendations. Judging by the appearance of the bridge, it was on the borderline between saving it and scrapping it. As draconian as PennDOT has been to the historic bridges, I would not have been surprised had the decision for the latter choice been taken. But much to my surprise after talking with the inspectors, my assumptions were wrong. From their point of view, it would be possible if the bridge would last another 25-30 years if some repairs are made.  It was a rather optimistic prediction given the sorry state of the bridges in the US in general.  As a whole, America’s bridges were graded C on a scale from A (excellent) to F (fail) by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009. That means that despite progress in repairing/ rehabilitating as well as replacing bridges deemed structurally obsolete to today’s standards, there is still more work to be done. Yet in terms of preserving historic bridges in general, my grade would be in the D range, and in the case of Pennsylvania, a walloping F.  That means that historic bridges most of the time are minimally maintained, causing them to deteriorate to a point where replacement is warranted. And that could be expensive, as a new bridge is four times as expensive as updating the bridge to meet current traffic standards. There were many examples of historic bridges I visited in western Pennsylvania that fell victim to neglect because of incremental ways to save money for maintenance- even for a good coat of paint if it is needed. As of this entry, a couple have since been removed and replaced and a few more are slated to come out soon.

Despite its top three ranking for the worst infrastructure in the country, Pennsylvania has been trying to catch up on bridge work through its massive bridge replacement program, regardless of where the funding comes from- from the state, federal government or even the private sector. Yet given the dire straits of the US economy and the political stalemate that has been going on in Washington- especially in light of this year’s presidential elections, it seems that the funding is being dried up faster than there are plans for replacing bridges in the next five years. Henceforth, the only viable option for PennDOT is to heed to the demands of the experts in bridge rehabilitation and preservation, listen to the public and rehabilitate the bridge from top to bottom so that the structure can continue serving traffic for more than 30 years and still be part of the legacy that Ambridge still prides itself in.

The plan calls for a complete closure of the bridge between now and the end of November of this year and will include the repair and partial replacement of the bridge deck, replacement of the sidewalk and railings, repairs on the steel superstructure, new roadway, and a new paint job, just to name a few features of the project. What will produce a mixture of reactions from the public and those interested in the bridge is the change in paint color from aqua green to grey. While grey is commonly used on many truss bridges, it is highly questionable on this bridge, given its conformity to the surroundings. Yet there are some bright sides to the use of grey on the bridge, which includes it being brighter for cars at night and more noticeable for navigation on the Ohio River. What the bridge will look like once the rehabilitation is completed remains to be seen, but it appears that if the rehabilitation project is successful, it could spell a chance for PennDOT to look for ways to rehabilitate other historic bridges in the area. It does not necessarily have to be the main links, like the Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge. It could also be some historic bridges, like the Carlton Bridge in Mercer County, which only takes an average of 10 vehicles a day. Rehabilitation can be a win-win situation for all parties involved. It saves money, prolongs the bridge’s life and maximizes its usage and especially, it preserves the historic significance of the bridge and its affiliation with the community and the people connected with it. The Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge may help PennDOT to finally turn the curve in terms of its stance on historic bridges.




Bridgehunter Fast Fact:

Minus the greater Pittsburgh and Wheeling areas, Beaver County ranks in the top five of the highest number of truss bridges in western Pennsylvania, as many simple and cantilever truss bridges can be found within a 5-6 kilometer radius of each other on average. One of the reasons for this is the policy of rehabilitating and preserving pre-1965 spans with a potential of being reused again, despite the historic significance. A couple noteworthy examples include the Fallston Bridge (below). Built by the Penn Bridge Company in 1884, this two-span Whipple truss bridge was rehabilitated in 2005 and still serves traffic to this day. The bridge is located over the Beaver River near the Beaver Valley Golf Course in Fallston.

Photo taken by James Baughn in 2009

The other example is the rehabilitation going on at the Beaver Expressway Bridge (middle bridge in the photo below). Built in 1963, the bridge serves freeway traffic and was undergoing extensive rehabilitation of the deck truss span during the visit. The cities of Rochester and Beaver had already renovated a neighboring bridge to the north of the structure.

Photo taken by James Baughn in 2009


Author’s note: Unless noted, photos were taken during a tour in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and along the Ohio River in August 2010