A Heavy Sigh For Covered Bridges
I remember talk about covered bridges and how pretty they were but I never saw one and I wasn’t sure what they meant by a covered bridge. Covered with what? Snow? Yes, that would be beautiful except it seldom snowed back in Lincoln County.
A bridge with a tarp over it? That didn’t sound pretty. The closest thing to a covered bridge to me back in Lincoln County in the 1950s was the Homer Legg Bridge crossing Clark Hill Lake into Columbia County. It had a latticework of steel that knocked out the AM stations in Augusta. That bridge, to me, qualified as a covered bridge … so I thought.
Through the years, I continued to hear about covered bridges but never saw an authentic one until Clint Eastwood directed and starred with Meryl Streep in The Bridges Of Madison County. That was on the silver screen, though, and my qualification for membership in the “I’ve Seen A Real Covered Bridge Club” remained on hold.
The years bring knowledge, and now I know that the covered bridge’s history is fairly straightforward. Early bridges in this country were not much more than logs stretched across creeks. Rudimentary but effective. Now you can get there from here.
As bridge building evolved, builders created longer spans using trusses, arches, and joined stringers. The bridges were made almost entirely of wood. And that’s where problems developed. The joints of a wooden truss bridge would rot if exposed to the weather. Covering the bridge with a roof solved that problem, bestowing our culture with a picturesque edifice: the covered bridge.
Today, authentic covered bridges in these parts are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Down near Augusta, there’s a covered bridge in Evans at the Woodbridge Subdivision, apparently the creation of a developer who wanted to give his community a unique identity, and he did.
Up in Oconee County you can find a quaint span from the old days that’s been restored. The bridge spans Red Oak Creek and was built in 1840. It’s not open for traffic, and that’s a good thing. A historical marker tells passersby about the old bridge.
Back in February 2007, I came across the real deal: a covered bridge up in northern Greenville, South Carolina. I was up for the production of Leatherheads and had some time to kill one afternoon. I was riding around checking out the countryside. It was late afternoon when sunlight comes in so low everything is gold and lustrous despite blue winter light, but driving is hard. A bit blinded as I rounded a curve, I got quite a shock as my eyes adjusted. I saw a bridge I’d seen on a daily basis! It’s the bridge in a Robert Clark photograph, framed and hanging in my house, Campbell’s Covered Bridge.
Suddenly, without warning, I was a member of the “I’ve Seen A Real Covered Bridge Club.” This covered bridge sits near the small town of Gowensville. It’s South Carolina’s last remaining covered bridge and it crosses Beaverdam Creek. Greenville County owns the bridge and closed it to traffic in the early 1980s. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 1, 2009.
I got out and walked into the old bridge, struck by its narrow width. Beneath the wooden flooring, Beaverdam Creek ran cold and swift over rocks. Everything was peaceful, the air a bit chilled, the creek purling. I stayed there a while trying to envision the many years before when traffic eased through and no one gave a second thought to the bridge’s uniqueness. It would have made for a nice spot for couples, once the busy day settled down. Darkness dropped faster and faster, and I finally walked out from the bridge. As I did, a couple drove up. Getting out of their truck, they looked at me, a stranger, as if I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t. I was glad to see the old bridge still had allure, still had its pull on romantic souls … yet another cover to slip beneath.
The covered bridge … it’s a romantic symbol of another era and a lot of book-reading, movie-going women associate it with romance all right. If you didn’t see or read The Bridges of Madison County the plot goes like this … While her husband and children are far away at the Illinois state fair in the summer of 1965, Francesca Johnson gives a stranger, Robert Kincaid, directions to Roseman Bridge. He’s a photographer in Iowa on assignment from National Geographic magazine and he’s lost and in a way, so is she. She shows him the bridge and gradually talks to him about her life. She tells him she’s a war bride from Italy. Kincaid tells her how beautiful she is and she’s lost no more. She and Kincaid become involved ever so briefly. Later, she writes her thoughts of the four-day love affair in three journals.
The years go by and Francesca dies. Sorting out their mom’s concerns, the children find her journals. As the lawyer goes over Francesca’s will and possessions, a key to her hope chest surfaces, revealing some of hers and Robert Kincaid’s keepsakes. The message her children take from the diaries is you do what you must to be happy in life.
After learning that Robert Kincaid’s cremated remains were scattered off Roseman Bridge and that their mother requested that she, too, be cremated and her ashes scattered off Roseman Bridge, the children must decide whether to honor their mother’s final wishes or bury her alongside their father as the family had planned.
I should add that Robert James Waller wrote the novel on which the movie is based, and the critics slammed it, but we all know about critics, don’t we. The movie was set in Madison County, Iowa, which once had 19 covered bridges. Only six remain today, all on the National Register of Historic Places. A few details about these old bridges. The Madison County Board of Supervisors ordered the bridges covered to help preserve the large flooring timbers, which were more expensive to replace than the lumber used to cover the bridge. The bridges were named for the resident who lived closest and that brings me back to the steel and concrete bridge of my youth, the Homer Legg Bridge. For a long time that bridge was the biggest bridge in the world. I made that remark to a friend not long as we traveled over it.
“Didn’t see much of the world as a kid, huh,” she said.
So, how did this bridge get the old judge’s name? I knew it had to be important. I dug around looking for information, and I came across a column by Bill Baab, Fishing Editor at the Augusta Chronicle. According to Baab, the original U.S. Army Corps of Engineer plans called for the Little River Bridge to be removed in the Clark Hill Lake’s infancy. Legg persuaded the engineers to keep the bridges, and the Little River span later was named in honor of him. Good thing Judge Legg talked the Corps into keeping that bridge. The trip from Lincolnton, Georgia, to Augusta would be a lot longer without it, covered or not.
Vandals burned many of yesteryear’s covered bridges. What man creates, he destroys. There’s not much hope for some, is there?