County engineer explains love of covered bridges

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

With the first Union County Covered Bridge Festival just around the corner, I've been asked repeatedly -- why?

Why am I committed to covered bridges?

Why are covered bridges important?

Why do we want to keep these old bridges?

Why do we want to build new ones?

When I was in high school and college, I worked for my dad in his construction business. We built houses, garages, barns, small business buildings and church additions. Everything we built had a roof on it.

Attending college, I majored in civil engineering after deciding I wasn't cut out to be an architect. Civil engineering deals largely with public works, such as roads and bridges. I chose to specialize in structures/buildings and bridges.

How many of you remember the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967? Soon after its collapse, Ohio mandated that all bridges in the state be inspected once a year (we still do that today). Many counties didn't have the expertise to inspect bridges, so several of my fellow civil engineering classmates and I started a business along with one classmate's father who was a professional engineer.

We contracted with rural county engineers to do all their bridge inspections for them: Union, Delaware, Knox, Champaign, Logan and some other counties. We'd go to school during the week and pair up on weekends to inspect bridges. By doing that, we had the opportunity to crawl around many old steel truss bridges and some historic covered bridges.

Covered bridges are a link to the past. A past that was simpler and slower paced -- a time when the country was more rural. We spent more quality time with friends and family.

Covered bridges are also a link to our transportation history. They were the first type of bridge that saw widespread use in Ohio. Many of the bridges were built by the same builders who built houses and barns. They built in the way they knew how -- with a roof. The roof protected the large wood trusses along each side of the bridges. Rain, snow and sun can damage wood, especially in a climate like that of Ohio. There was a very practical purpose for "covering" bridges.

We have six covered bridges in Union County. Four are historic while two are new.

Our four historic covered brides were all built in the late 1860s and early 1870s by Reuben Partridge. He was a prolific bridge builder who built many bridges in Union and surrounding counties. He lived in Marysville on West 7th Street and is buried in Oakdale Cemetery. We've restored and rehabilitated the bridges over the years to improve their ability to carry modern traffic and extend their life.

Our historic covered bridges are still part of our transportation system. One carries pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The three others still carry car and truck traffic. All three can carry loaded school buses and fire trucks. With regular maintenance, we expect these bridges to see the beginning of the next century.

The two new covered bridges we opened in 2007 are much more advanced than their historic counterparts. They utilize modern technologies and properly designed wood truss members. The new bridges can carry all legal loads and legal height vehicles. The bridges had a higher initial cost than some other more traditional types of bridges. When you factor in their longevity, however, they are actually cheaper. A federal grant paid for about 90% of their cost.

We have another new covered bridge planned for 2010 and already have a federal grant that will pay for 80% of the total cost. The 2010 bridge will span Mill Creek on Thompson Road. Our other covered bridges are all located in the Big Darby Creek and Little Darby Creek watersheds.

Many people enjoy looking at and photographing our covered bridges. Each bridge has daily visitors during the spring, summer and fall. The bridges draw tourists to Union County from throughout Ohio and the Midwest.

I hope you'll attend our Covered Bridge Festival on September 6. I'm sure you'll understand why.

Steve Stolte is the Union County Engineer.

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