Pennsylvania is home to more than 200 covered wooden bridges, almost 30 of them in Lancaster County. They summon up a bygone era, although they are still very much in use. I set out to find out more about the bridges of Lancaster County.
What are Covered Bridges?
There is a long history of covered bridges around the world. Some very early ones can still be seen: for instance, the Holzbrücke Bad Säckingen between Germany and Switzerland dates from 1700, but was first constructed in 1272. The first covered bridges in the US were built in Pennsylvania, mostly in the 19th century. At one time there were around 1500 such bridges across Pennsylvania.
But what are covered bridges and why were they built? Put simply, they are small wooden bridges – often across a creek or stream – with wooden sides and a roof, making an enclosed structure. These coverings were necessary to protect the underlying wooden supports from excess weathering. Without the cover a bridge might only last for ten to fifteen years, whereas a roofed structure will last for much longer.
There were other benefits too. At a time when most traffic involved horses, the wooden sides would prevent the horses from shying into the water. And the roof would provide an element of shelter from the wind and the rain. In fact, these considerations are still important in Lancaster County, as the area is home to a large Amish community who use horses and buggies as their main transport. The bridges are also known as “kissing bridges”, for the brief moment of privacy they give to couples walking across them.
In Search of the Bridges of Lancaster County
Lancaster County has 28 bridges included in the US Register of Historic Places (there were once many more, but some were destroyed by flooding). Maps and driving tours are available to help you explore them. I discovered several bridges close to the quaintly named Bird-in-Hand Amish settlement where I was based.
In fact, I soon realised that, although the coverings prolong the life of the bridges, they still need frequent repair. Two of the bridges on my list were closed for major renewal work. But it didn’t matter. Once you get away from the busy main road, you can enjoy a peaceful and pleasant country drive. Many of the farms are still owned by Amish families, and you are as likely to meet a buggy or a bicycle as another car.
Eshleman’s Mill Bridge
The first on my list was Eshleman’s Mill Bridge. Like many others in Lancaster County, this one crosses the Pequea Creek. Over the years it has variously been known as Leaman’s Place Covered Bridge or the Paradise Bridge.
The coming of the railway in the mid 19th century triggered the formation of a small community beside the creek. A grist mill – grinding wheat and corn – was established, together with a small distillery. This led to demands for a way across the water, and the first bridge was built in 1845. The current structure dates from 1892.
Lime Valley Bridge
The Lime Valley Bridge was built in 1871. Like Eshleman’s Mill, it crosses the Pequea Creek and was once associated with a grist mill. It is also known as the Huntzinger’s Mill Bridge or the Strasburg Bridge. There was originally another, identical, bridge just 200ft from this one, but no trace of it now remains.
Also like Eshleman’s Mill, the Lime Valley Bridge has red-painted oak beams, with white entrances on both sides: this style seems to be traditional for Lancaster County. Lime Valley was my favourite of the bridges I visited, because of its beautiful setting.
The Willows Covered Bridge
The Willows (or Willow Hill) differs from the others in that it is not an original bridge, but a reconstruction. It was built in 1962 from materials salvaged from two earlier bridges – Millers Farm Bridge (1871) and Goods Ford Bridge (1855) – which had been scheduled for demolition.
Although it is by the busy Lincoln Highway (park in the nearby shoppers’ car park), The Willows manages to maintain the tranquillity of the older bridges. Like the others it is painted red, but the inside is unpainted. Look out for an interesting piece of graffiti – the mark of the contractors who moved the bridge in 1962.
All of the bridges I visited were over small, quiet creeks, reminiscent of an era with a slower pace of life. As I stopped to photograph the Eshleman’s Mill Bridge a large Amish buggy filled with curious tourists came clip-clopping its way towards me. I felt as if I had stepped back in time.