Ackley Covered Bridge in Pennsylvania
Few visitors to Greenfield Village cross Ackley Covered Bridge realizing the significance of the structure surrounding them. It is one of the oldest surviving covered bridges in the country, and considerable thought went into its overall design. Covered bridges have long been stereotyped as quaint, but the reason behind their construction was never charm or shelter for travelers. The sole function of the “cover” was to protect the bridge’s truss system by keeping its structural timbers dry.
Built in 1832, Ackley Covered Bridge represents an early form of American vernacular architecture and is the oldest “multiple kingpost” truss bridge in the country. This structural design consists of a series of upright wooden posts with braces inclined from the abutments at either end of the bridge and leaning towards the center post, or “kingpost.” It is also a prime example of period workmanship and bridge construction undertaken with pride as a community enterprise.
This map of Washington County, Pennsylvania, shows the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge (bottom left). / THF625813
Ackley Covered Bridge was constructed across Wheeling Creek on the Greene-Washington County line near West Finley, Pennsylvania. The single-span, 80-foot structure was built to accommodate traffic caused by an influx of settlers. Daniel and Joshua Ackley, who had moved with their mother to Greene County in 1814, donated the land on which the bridge was originally constructed, as well as the building materials. More than 100 men from the local community, including contractor Daniel Clouse, were involved in the bridge’s construction. Like most early bridge builders in America, they were little known outside their community. But their techniques were sound, and their work stood the test of time.
Initial community discussions about the bridge included a proposal to use hickory trees, which were abundant in the region, in honor of President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. Instead, they settled on white oak, which was more durable and less likely to warp. The timber came from Ackley property a half mile south of the building site. It was cut at a local sawmill located a mile south of the bridge. Hewing to the shapes and size desired was done by hand on site. Stone for the abutments was secured from a quarry close by.
Ackley Covered Bridge replaced an earlier swinging grapevine bridge, and it may soon have been replaced itself if settlement and construction in the region had continued. Instead, the area remained largely undeveloped for several decades. This, along with three roof replacements (in 1860, 1890, and 1920), helped ensure the bridge’s survival.
Ackley Covered Bridge at its original site before relocation to Greenfield Village, 1937. / THF235241
Plans to replace the more than 100-year-old structure with a new concrete bridge in 1937 spurred appeals from the local community to Henry Ford, asking him to relocate Ackley Covered Bridge to Greenfield Village. Ford sent representatives to inspect, measure, and photograph the bridge before accepting it as a donation from Joshua Ackley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Evans. She had purchased the well-worn structure from the state of Pennsylvania for $25, a figure based on the value of its timber. Evans had a family connection to one of Ford’s heroes, William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s birthplace, already in Greenfield Village, had stood a mere seven miles from the original site of Ackley Covered Bridge—an association that likely factored in Ford’s decision to rescue the structure.
Dismantling of Ackley Covered Bridge began in December 1937. Its timbers were shipped by rail to Dearborn, Michigan, and the bridge was constructed over a specially designed pond in Greenfield Village just in time for its formal dedication in July 1938.
Ackley Covered Bridge after construction in Greenfield Village, 1938. / THF625902
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford, from a historic structure report written in July 1999 by architectural consultant Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ph.D.
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