Passageways to the Past
The covered bridges of Chester County
Whenever I cross a covered bridge, I think how different they are from the towering steel monstrosities of today. My thoughts dwell on the people on horseback and wagons who passed that way many years ago. Thomas F. Gordon’s Gazetteer of the State of Pennsylvania calls our commonwealth “the state of bridges,” for its bridges are “unrivaled in number, magnitude, and boldness of design.”
Our local heritage includes a bridge built across the western branch of Brandywine Creek when Thomas Jefferson was President in 1807. By the 1830s, Pennsylvania had more of these charming structures than any other state. Over the next 90 years, the state built 77 covered bridges locally, in addition to 21 others, which crossed over to neighboring Delaware, Lancaster, and Montgomery counties. At the end of the 19th century, 85 were still in active use.
There’s even a group devoted to following these lovely reminders of a bygone era. The Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania maintains an updated listing of all those that remain on the landscape. Despite replacement over the decades, Chester County still has at least 15 of them still standing.
Here are seven covered bridges that you should know about:
Ferdinand Wood built the Valley Forge/Knox Bridge across Valley Creek near present-day Valley Forge Park in 1851. Destroyed by fire, it was replaced in 1865. It is sometimes called the Knox Bridge, named after two well-known men at the time. General Henry Knox was George Washington’s chief of artillery during the Revolutionary War. He had his quarters in one of the homes along the creek very near where the bridge was later built. Philander C. Knox served two terms as U.S. Senator, U.S. Attorney General, and later as Secretary of State under President Taft. The bridge was nearly destroyed by fire once more, but due to the quick action of the Valley Forge Park Police, it was saved and reinforced with steel girders.
Bartram’s Bridge over Crum Creek is an inter-county structure with a 60-foot span and a 13-foot-wide roadway that came to life in the year 1860. Connecting Willistown Township in Chester County to Newtown Township in Delaware County, it was first described as “high and wide as a load of hay.” Although closed to traffic, it has been preserved and well-maintained over the years.
Built in 1872, Gibson’s Harmony Bridge over the Brandywine near Downingtown gained its name from local farmer James Gibson and the village of Harmony Hill. The bridge’s original stone marker is still there on the southeastern wall.
Mercer’s Bridge over Octorara Creek is less than a mile south of Atglen. The name comes from John Mercer, a local farmer who erected a flour mill before the Civil War. Prior to the $1,652 construction of the 85-foot span, there was a log for foot traffic chained to an iron post deeply buried in the ground so that floodwaters wouldn’t carry it away.
Speakman’s Bridge connects the townships of East and West Marlborough, spanning Buck Run roughly 1.5 miles upstream from the Mary Ann Pyle Bridge built at the same time in 1881. Speakman’s is named after Jonathan Speakman, who converted a pre-Civil War-era paper mill into a gristmill.
The Linton Stevens Bridge stands near the intersection of East Nottingham, Elk and New London townships. Located along a popular thoroughfare running from New London Village to the Hickory Hill Post Office, the bridge’s name comes from Linton Stevens, a local postmaster who kept shop in his general store at the time of its construction.
The Glen Hope Bridge stands near Oxford in Elk Township. President Grover Cleveland had it constructed during his first term in Washington. The $1,767 bridge with a posted “Three-Ton Limit” was later damaged when the driver of a 20-ton cement truck tried to cross it, literally falling through the bottom and sinking into the stream below. Chester County Commissioner J. Carl Empie saved the bridge when he allocated funds for its repair.
Although less often used, these bridges survive despite decades of wind, rain, and snow, and still offer travelers their sturdy beams for transport. If you have never driven or walked across an old covered bridge, enjoy a tour through the countryside where one stands. Take a long look. You’ll see a proud symbol of our heritage.
Gene Pisasale is an author/lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. His books and lecture series focus on historical topics. Gene’s latest book is The Forgotten Star, which delves into true-life mysteries surrounding the War of 1812 and an American icon—The Star-Spangled Banner. His lecture series on this topic is being presented around the region to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of this historic event. He can be contacted at [email protected].