Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village. / THF1914
Guests visiting Greenfield Village in the spring of 2001 encountered a newly transformed Ackley Covered Bridge. The landmark structure—one of the most recognizable, most photographed sites on the grounds—had been completely repaired and restored. While the bridge’s resurrection may have seemed to have happened miraculously, it was—as with all our restoration efforts—the result of meticulous planning and careful completion of a well-defined project.
Originally constructed in 1832 in southwestern Pennsylvania, the single-span, 80-foot bridge’s design dates back to 16th-century Italy and was adapted in a uniquely American way in the early 1800s. It is referred to as a multiple kingpost truss: a series of upright wooden posts, with all braces inclined from the abutments and leaning towards the center of the “kingpost.”
Ackley Covered Bridge was originally a community project, built by more than 100 men on land owned and with materials donated by brothers Daniel and Joshua Ackley. By the mid-1930s, it had fallen into serious disrepair, and when a modern bridge was constructed to replace it, the granddaughter of one of the builders purchased the hundred-year-old Ackley structure for about $25 and donated it to Henry Ford.
Simple and classic in its construction, the bridge was dismantled at its original location in late 1937 and shipped by rail to Dearborn. Modifications were made to ensure its longevity, and a number of basic preservation chores were undertaken in the six months between its arrival and the completion of reconstruction in July 1938. (You can view photos of the bridge’s reconstruction and dedication in our Digital Collections.)
Ackley Covered Bridge after reconstruction in Greenfield Village, June 30, 1938. / THF625902
“Even in the 1930s, the Ackley Covered Bridge was clearly an architectural treasure, and Ford and his designers knew its importance and placed it at the heart of the Village,” said Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, architectural consultant for the restoration project. The bridge was back in its prime, spanning a pond designed specifically for it.
Taking photographs near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, 1958. / THF625878
“Unfortunately, the pond was standing rather than flowing water, and the water level had the ability to rise and fall,” she said. “The chords and four end trusses of the bridge (basically, its feet) were exposed to extreme wet/dry cycles, and rot was imminent. By 1974 the bridge was structurally unsound, and dangerous.”
While repairs were undertaken then, nothing was done to regulate the level of the pond, and by the spring of 1999, one truss end was found to be rotting. Closer examination revealed that the bridge was once again structurally unsafe.
Alec Jerome, then part of the facilities management team he now leads at The Henry Ford, was designated as project leader to bring Ackley Covered Bridge back to stability. David Fischetti, a historical structural engineer from North Carolina with a background in covered bridges, was brought in to develop a plan to properly restore the bridge, and Arnold Graton of New Hampshire, one of the country’s leading covered bridge timberwrights, was selected to lead the stabilization and restoration work.
“First,” said Jerome, “the pond had to be drained to expose areas that needed repair. The conditions that we discovered led to some serious revisions in our original project plan—every beam touching the ground was rotting and needed to be replaced.”
Views showing restoration of Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, September and October 2000. / THF628587, THF628611, THF628525
The dry rot portion of the original trusses was removed and new support beams were spliced on. The refurbished trusses were then seated on stainless steel plates to prevent moisture from wicking up into the wood. Also, a turnbuckle system was implemented in the upper beams of the bridge, which had become separated over time, to ensure stability. Many of the connectors holding the bridge beams together were replaced, and ultimately a bolster was laid to eliminate any conditions that would promote rot in the floor beams and allow that devastating wet/dry cycle of rot to begin again.
“Our main concerns were the extensive amount of rot over and above the original expectations, the short time period between Village programs in which we had to complete the work, and weather conditions getting in our way,” Jerome said. Work began the day after Old Car Festival in September, and lasted through the day before the start of the evening program, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the second week of October. “The project could not have been completed without the assistance of the Museum’s carpentry department and our welder,” Jerome said. “These people assisted with every facet of this restoration.” See more photographs from the restoration project in our Digital Collections.
According to conservator Sickels-Taves, research determined that Ackley Covered Bridge was the oldest multiple kingpost truss bridge and the sixth-oldest covered bridge in the nation. While the cost of its restoration after a century and a half of decline was substantial, its preservation for the future was priceless—without such key commitments of resources, important structures like Ackley Covered Bridge would be lost forever. “The bridge is unquestionably important,” Sickels-Taves said. “We should be proud, and not hesitate to brag that we are the steward of one of the earliest forms of original American architecture.”
A version of this post originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of The Henry Ford’s former publication, Living History. It was edited for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
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.
You may have visited Greenfield Village and some, or maybe all, of the structures it contains. But did you know we also have extensive documentation and photographs of these buildings in our collections? This summer, intern Molly Malcolm is working with Curator of Public Life Donna Braden and Curator of Domestic Life Jeanie Miller to collate information about some of our buildings and add it to our collections management system. As part of this effort, we are also digitizing selected photographs showing the structures on their original sites, people related to each building, and the dedication of the buildings in Greenfield Village. We started with the A’s, so first up is the Ackley Covered Bridge. View more newly-added Ackley-related material in our digital collections, or jump to this specific dedication photo, featuring an apparently less-than-impressed guest in the lower left. Watch the blog and our collections website for more buildings to come!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.