The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 1, 2009

Two-lane wonder

Rock Creek’s iconic covered bridge served for 116 years

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

It was hailed as “an Ashtabula County landmark,” an incredible example of early-19th century workmanship and perhaps the most unique among the county’s covered bridges.

All the same, the two-lane covered bridge that stood just south of Rock Creek Village was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1948 the landmark bridge that had spanned the community’s namesake stream for 116 years gave way to a much wider, stronger span on Route 45.

The bridge never left any doubt about its age, builders’ identity or ability to withstand time, the elements and man-made vicissitudes. An inscription on its north end stated its construction year as 1832 and its builders as Samuel Ackley and George Crowell, who built it for the Ashtabula-Trumbull Turnpike Company. Ackley and Cromwell were carpenters from Rome Township.

This turnpike, completed in 1820, ran from Ashtabula Harbor south to Austinburg along the original “Old Salt Road.” It eventually reached Warren and continued south to Wellsville, on the Ohio River.

Salt roads were paths Native Americans blazed through the wilderness to salt springs, vital natural resources for the pioneers. As the region developed, these established roads were further developed, although they were often “one long mud hole” much of the year.

Route 45 follows a section of this old turnpike, which headed northeast along present-day Austinburg Road. The turnpike was a key transportation route for stagecoaches carrying mail and passengers between lake and river communities. The turnpike company ran a coach on this line and changed out horses at Rock Creek and Orwell. A toll gate for the road stood near the north end of the bridge.

The bridge constructed at Rock Creek replaced what had been a crude floating bridge made of logs. And prior to that, travelers forded the creek.

Wood on wood

Ackley and Cromwell built a fine bridge using native hemlock and oak. No nails were used, the bridge members were secured to each other using wooden pegs. However, in the ensuing decades many pounds of metal would be driven into these strong timbers as repairs were made and posters and hand bills tacked to its sides and interior.

The bridge was 119 feet in length, 24 feet wide and had an overhang of 11 feet, 5 inches. A center partition separated the two traffic lanes – one was 11 feet, 3 inches, the other 11 feet 9 inches, in width.

So why did this bridge, built in the days of horse-and-buggy transportation, need two lanes separated by a partition?

“Those places where you find two-lane bridges tend to be urban settings where there was an obvious need for traffic flow control in two directions, or on some sort of cross-county turnpike,” explains David Simmons, president of the Ohio Historic Bridge Association.

Although more romantic explanations might include preventing horses from being distracted by oncoming traffic or to provide kissing couples an extra measure of privacy, such explanations fly in the face of the more pragmatic, overriding need to efficiently direct traffic across the river.

The bridge was built in harm’s path, but she held her ground through decades of ice jams and flooding. The worse flood, in 1884, was so severe water rose to the second floor of houses north of the bridge. An ice jam piled up 6 feet above the road and bullied the 60-year-old bridge. But when spring came and the ice abated, she continued her work unfazed.

A fire in 1924 destroyed much of the village’s business district. The flames licked the north end of the bridge, as well, and set afire the roof of the 90-year-old bridge.

It was the fire of the internal combustion engine, however, that would eventually doom the structure. As Route 45 emerged as an important north-south transportation route in post-war, industrialized Ohio, the narrow structure with its low clearance became an impediment to progress.

“The covered bridge doesn’t allow some of the larger trucks to clear it,” observed a Rock Creek businessman in a 1941 newspaper story. He said the fast-moving vehicles of the 1940s were a poor match for the bridge, “a dangerous roadway, especially in winter.”

In 1942 the Traveler’s Club, a Rock Creek community group, launched a drive to preserve the iconic structure. Suggestions included moving it to the nearby community park or dismantling and re-assembling it on the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds.

Neither plan came to pass, however, and the old bridge was dismantled in 1948 and replaced with a steel-truss bridge.

Wooden pegs salvaged from the bridge are said to be part of the collection at the Jennie Munger Museum, Geneva-on-the-Lake. And the iconic nature of the bridge is still recalled in a mural on the side of a village business.

A native son of Rock Creek, E.T. Abbott, who became famous in the West for laying out railroads and bridges, paid a compliment to the bridge’s builders upon a visit to the community a few years before the bridge’s final crossing.

“He made a thorough examination of the historic old bridge and found it to be in excellent condition,” reported a 1941 newspaper story. “He said it was well put together with wooden pegs. ... Oak and hemlock wood was used in construction. Mr. Abbott attributed their fine preservation to the free circulation of air in and around the structure.”