The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 1, 2009

Paying homage to our ancestors’ forgotten crossings

A CARL E. FEATHER column


Long before Ashtabula County was selected as the site for the nation’s longest covered bridge, the area had already established itself as an enclave for wooden crossings, several of them unique among Ohio’s covered-bridge population.

That inventory included two of the unique double-barrel or two-lane covered bridges, a Conneaut crossing with twin bridges, two Ashtabula Gulf spans that predated the Smolen-Gulf bridge by more than a century and a romantic little gal that stood along the Lake Erie shoreline.

The county’s population of legacy bridges – those constructed when covered bridges were the accepted practice among highway builders – is only one quarter of what once stood here. It is to be assumed, therefore, that there are many Ashtabula County residents alive today who never had the experience of driving through the Crooked Gulf covered bridge, taking refuge in one of the several extinct Pierpont or Monroe Township spans during a rainstorm or sliding under the Fobes Road bridge in a canoe.

During the next several months, the front of this section will feature these “Forgotten Crossings” with profiles of the county’s extinct covered bridges that spanned rivers and creeks, centuries and generations, and vastly different economies and modes of transportation.

The latter two, in many instances, doomed their being. A newspaper article dating from the late 1940s and written by Carl C. Plain predicted “inevitably, all of the county’s covered bridges must be cleared some day from the path of progress. They are quaint and picturesque and have linked two centuries with different modes of travel, but they were never intended to withstand the speed, volume or weight of modern-day traffic.”

Later in that article, Plain declared “Engineers of today would consider it a fine example of efficiency if modern bridges could be constructed to serve with equal effectiveness and low cost over such an extended period of time.”

As county engineer, John Smolen spoiled the first prediction and fulfilled the second. He found engineering solutions that allowed the old bridges to serve most modern traffic. And in the Smolen-Gulf and other four new bridges built under his watch, Smolen capitalized upon the covered bridge’s long-term value and durability.

In preparing this series, I am indebted to the work of Dennis Osborn, who painstakingly assembled a list of the old bridges, and Norma Waters and other Ashtabula County Historical Society volunteers, who compiled photos and articles about the old bridges into notebooks accessible to researchers. Additional photographs came from the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival Committee and the collection of the late Ladimir Kubichek Sr., who photographed many of the old bridges in their final days.

Alice Bliss, who was recording secretary of the Ashtabula County Historical Society for many years, did a similar series for area newspapers and the society 40 years ago. I am indebted to her thorough research, which provides the basis for what will be presented in the weeks to come.

It is the intent of the Star Beacon to pull these stories and photos together into a book once the series is complete. To that end, if readers have additional photos or stories centering around these extinct structures, we welcome your contributions. Contact me at 998-2323, ext. 297, or by e-mail, cfeather@starbeacon.com.

Feather is a Star Beacon staff writer and photographer.