The first covered bridge in the United States was built in Philadelphia in 1805—it was named the Permanent Bridge. Over the course of the next century roughly 12,000 of these iconic American spans were constructed across the country, and while the Permanent Bridge is gone, 750 remain standing today, 47 of them in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Why Cover a Wooden Bridge?
In the early 1800s, agriculture and industrialization were growing rapidly throughout the Northeast and the coastal rivers and estuaries were lifelines of trade and communication. But as the coastal population penetrated inland, the many rivers and creeks cutting across the region became barriers to overland transport. Farmers and industrialists alike needed bridges to enable commerce across an increasingly sprawling and disconnected region.
Traditional European building methods wouldn't work in the comparatively harsh North American climate—hot summers and frigid winters created freeze/thaw cycles that would overturn stone pavings—but the dry air meant that wood wouldn't rot, and so it became the building material of choice. The reason to cover these bridges was simple: less exposure to the elements meant the wooden superstructures would last longer.
Covered bridges are differentiated by the types of trusses used to support the roadway. These trusses were often named after their creators, and met with varying degrees of success. One early design, the multiple kingpost truss, consisted of a series of triangular sections supported by a central vertical ''kingpost'', and could span up to 100 feet. The Burr arch truss, named for its inventor Theodore Burr, was one of the more popular, featuring two large wooden arches connected to a kingpost truss framework. There are 123 bridges remaining in Pennsylvania using the Burr truss design —more than all other truss designs combined. Nathaniel Town created the Town truss, a latticework of smaller timbers that could be constructed by unskilled laborers and span distances of up to 200 feet. The Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society has a comprehensive online resource of truss types.
Mythology + Trivia
- The greatest period of covered bridge building took place between 1820 and 1900.
- Pennsylvania has 210 remaining covered bridges—more than any other state.
- The red color of many covered bridges in southwestern PA is from an early paint formula: oxides found in the local soil possessed natural insecticidal properties. The traditional red color is still popular, even though the paint formula is modern.
- They were commonly nicknamed "kissing bridges", derived from the exploits of young suitors trying to steal kisses from their sweethearts while passing through the bridges' darkened interiors.
- Several old wives'' tales exist to explain why these bridges were covered. The most popular include scaring off evil spirits, or making it easier to herd cattle across the water by imitating the shape of a barn.
Other Covered Bridge Resources
Indiana County is home to four covered bridges constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Washington and Greene Counties Covered Bridges Driving Tour provides the essential information (directions, stats and facts) needed to plan a single outing or multiple excursions.
Information on many historic covered bridges throughout seven states in the Northeast, and links to external resources and other covered bridge organizations.
Comprehensive listing of all authentic and recently built covered bridges in Pennsylvania, with pictures, description, and GPS coordinates.
Non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the historical legacy of America's remaining covered bridges.
PA covered bridge society with extensive information on bridge terminology and explanations of the different truss types.