By David Breitkreutz
The rugged topography and continental climate of Pennsylvania produced a transportation problem during state’s westward expansion. Covering bridges protected the wooden truss structures from rot caused by inclement weather, and also distributed the weight, making them structurally stronger. By 1900 there were approximately 1500 covered bridges in Pennsylvania, today only a little over 200 are still extant, and 30 covered bridges are in Greene and Washington Counties. Covered bridges in Washington and Greene Counties are typically of the Queenpost Truss style, which present as bridges with additional diagonal timbers allowing for these bridges to be built with greater length.
The recognition of the significance of covered bridges to local heritage is manifested annually. On the weekend of September 20 – 21, 2014, Washington and Greene Counties Tourism Promotion Agencies hosted the 44th Covered Bridge Festival, the official kick-off to the fall season and signature event in the area. There are 10 (8 in Washington County and 2 in Greene County) festival locations, each offering a unique array of entertainment, activities, and crafts and foods from a variety of venders. I attended the festival locations at Ebenezer Bridge in Mingo Creek County Park, Washington County, and at White Bridge in Garards Fort, Greene County.
The Ebenezer Bridge was originally located next to the Ebenezer Church in Fallowfield Township crossing Maple Creek. The bridge relocated to Mingo Creek County Park in 1977 during the construction of Interstate 70. At its present location steel beams were added and extensions to the sidings where made so that it could rest on residual stone and mortar abutments from a previous covered bridge at that site. It is situated along a narrow asphalt path which follows a grassy floodplain within deciduous woods creating an idyllic spot for the bridge as well as an accessible location for heritage tourists. It is one of the most visited covered bridges during the festival. The festival at this location had many craft and food venders lining an approximate ¼ mile of the asphalt path, as well a live country music band, child’s train ride, and a petting zoo. The Ebenezer Bridge was in the middle of all this revelry, but were the patrons of the festival getting an “authentic” historical narrative and appreciation for the covered bridge? According to Tom Walczak, President of the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, “people at the festival are not getting a true sense of history of Ebenezer Bridge.” He added that, “what people get out of these festivals is an appreciation of their heritage.”
Conversely, The White Bridge in Garard’s Fort, Greene County, was always situated at its present location spanning Whitely Creek and shows no sign of additional reinforcements, just minor rehabilitation. The date of the bridge’s being attributed to both 1900 and 1919. This festival included a Civil War re-enactment of a staged “Battle for the Bridge”, upon asking several re-enactors, they confirmed that a Civil War skirmish had not occurred at that location. Further historical inaccuracies at this event included a man scantily clothed as a Huron Indian. Huron Indians are not local to this region—another temporal and spatial disconnect at an event supposedly honoring the White Bridge. This festival also offered living history demonstrations with re-enactors showing how tools were used and made, how quilts were sewn, and how pottery is made. These demonstrations were in keeping with the period of the White Bridge, as well as earlier times in Pennsylvania. The event also hosted horse drawn carriage rides and a live gospel band. At this festival Eben Williams, Executive Director/Administrator at The Greene County Historical Society and Museum, said “people get a sense of civic pride towards the bridge” and that the re-enactors were brought in to “tell a story of a shared past” and to “draw people to the event.” Another observation made was during a brief downpour of rain. A few people left the covered bridge to seek shelter in the temporary pop up tents that the venders used. I was among a few other people along with a horse drawn wagon, driver, and passengers that stayed under the cover the bridge provided. An elderly guest told me that “it looks like they didn’t know the covered bridge is here.” Did the runners subconsciously decide that seeking shelter under the covered bridge was disrespectful to the history and heritage? Whatever their motives it is clear that at this event the White Covered Bridge was an afterthought and was in the background, even though it was the reason for the festival.
Folk memories are a dominant theme in rural heritage narratives in Pennsylvania. Covered bridges are a nostalgic symbol within some of these stories of rural life and simpler times. The state, county, and local politicians, as well as the people of Pennsylvania, have had enough foresight to preserve, maintain, and restore many of these beautiful and historic pieces of heritage so that the public can enjoy them in the present day. The commodification of heritage can influence which heritage narratives are presented to the public. Of particular interest is whether the patrons of these covered bridge festivals are getting an accurate sense of history or whether they are getting a guileless and oddly sentimental version of their heritage
Covered bridges are an important part of transportation history in Washington and Greene Counties. At the festival their importance is undervalued because they are used as a commodity. However, the money generated by the festival is used to preserve many historical properties throughout the two counties, so the festival have monetary value to heritage and history. Local heritage is still important even if historical accuracy is thrown to the wind at these festivals. History is about people, through public folk narratives we can all gain a better appreciation of how these historic sites should be represented.
Plate 2. Horse drawn carriage waiting out rain under the cover of the White Bridge
Plate 3. Civil War re-enactors camped at the White Bridge
Plate 4. Vender pop up tents at Ebenezer Bridge