The Romance of Covered Bridges
Lloyd Van Meter photographing Nancy Lawrence near Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village, June 1958. / THF625878
What comes to mind when you picture a covered bridge? Many people imagine an idyllic scene, perhaps based on a favorite artist’s depiction or reference from literature or film. Few have difficulty visualizing a “classic” covered bridge. These structures have an appeal that has outlasted their utility, though common understanding of them is often misinformed.
Covered bridges were built across the United States throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for the sole purpose of protecting the structure within. Building a bridge was a major undertaking that required careful planning and a substantial community investment of time, labor, and materials. In the days before weatherproofed lumber, walls and a roof could extend a valuable bridge’s lifespan by shielding the truss system and keeping structural timbers dry.
In spite of their pure functionality, people came up with their own interpretations for covered bridges. Common beliefs emerged that a roof strengthened a bridge or protected the floor planks from rain and snow. Many came to think that covered bridges were built to shelter the people and animals traversing them, and some claimed the barn-like appearance calmed uneasy animals crossing over rushing water. Storytellers showcased covered bridges in tales ranging from the romantic to the mythical. These misunderstandings and cultural references encouraged the association of covered bridges with a “simpler time.”
Thanks to their age, perceived rarity, and admittedly often picturesque settings, covered bridges have increasingly attracted Americans’ attention. In 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reported there were fewer than 900 covered bridges remaining in the United States. (The estimated peak was about 14,000; you can view the full report here.) Many of these were, and are, well-loved and well-protected, with historic preservation groups and covered bridge societies dedicated to their upkeep. America’s surviving covered bridges have become regional treasures and tourist destinations. State and local organizations have featured them in marketing campaigns, erected signage, and developed tours to facilitate sightseeing.
Some states created special maps for covered bridge tourists. Above, “Covered Bridges in Maine,” 1956, and “Covered Bridges in New Hampshire,” 1969. / THF628822, THF628825
Postcards helped people share or remember covered bridges, whether close to home or part of a special trip. These examples depict covered bridges in Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. / THF625864, THF625866, THF625870, and THF625868
Nostalgic imagery of both real and imagined covered bridges continues to adorn everything from souvenirs to home décor. These examples from the collections of The Henry Ford help illustrate the enduring romance of covered bridges. You can browse more and see photographs documenting Greenfield Village’s Ackley Covered Bridge here.
Christmas card, 1949; "Vermont" snow globe, 1960-1975; and Hallmark "Grandparents" Christmas ornament, 1982. / THF628816, THF189039, and THF179213
Explore a similar fascination with practical structures—those that generate water power—through this expert set.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.