Cover Bridges of New Hampshire and Vermont

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Anyone remember a little book called "The Bridges of Madison County"? Never read the book but I saw the romance movie by the same name with Clint Eastwood as the Life Magazine photographer sent out to Madison.

As photographer Robert Kincaid, Clint wanders into the life of housewife Francesca Johnson, for four days in the 1960s and while hubby and the kids are off at the Illinois state fair, Meryl Streep and Clint make the most of the old claw foot tub if I remember the movie correctly.

Well I've been acting a bit like a modern day Kincaid lately. Minus the asking lonely, horny farm wives for directions of course. I mean I've been driving all over the New Hampshire and Vermont area, crawling down steep banks and setting up tripods on slippery rocks in order to capture the romantic covered bridges that we have in abundance in these here parts.

Yup, in this neck of the woods - the Upper Valley - we have a bunch of classic wooden bridges. Some original and some restored after nearly being lost in Tropical Storm Irene.

At one time there were over 10,000 covered bridges in the United States, and today 54 of the remaining 750 are located in New Hampshire. Located throughout the state, each bridge is unique to its town and design. Because of their beauty and the history behind them, covered bridges became the first type of historic structures specifically protected by state law in New Hampshire.

Vermont has the highest concentration of covered bridges at an astonishing 114 for such a small state. Why covered bridges?

Wooden bridges with exposed superstructures are vulnerable to rot. Covering and roofing them protects them from the weather, and so they last longer.

In one sense, that just puts off the question. Why so many wooden bridges? And why in the U. S. Northeast?

In eighteen hundred, the northeastern United States was a country in need of bridges. It is a fairly narrow coastal plain cut by many short rivers and creeks. In the "tidewater" region, these little streams and the great estuaries such as the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays had been highways and lifelines. But now the population was surging beyond the tidewater region, drawn both by the growth of agriculture and the call of water-powered industrialization. Inland farmers needed overland transport, and that meant fords or bridges. But the water-powered mills sought out the very places where the streams could not be forded -- the falls and rapids -- and they too needed transportation.

So bridges were needed. The American northeast was a forest country: wood was a plentiful building material, especially in the remote areas where the smaller bridges were needed. And the climate favored wooden construction. The climate of the region is harsh, by European standards -- hot in the summer and icey in the winter, with a freeze-thaw cycle that would overturn stone pavings. But this sort of climate is less destructive of wood than the mild, moist climate of Britain (or Oregon). So wooden bridges there would be.

The young United States had one other necessary ingredient in plenty: ingenuity. Lewis Wernwag, Theodore Burr, Menander Wood and the rest were just as essential as the material and the need. Without them, there would be no historic covered bridges.

As we enjoy our heritage, we honor the memory of those agile minds who created it.