The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Covered bridge series

February 8, 2009

Country charmers that once dotted the rural landscape

Town lattice bridges served rural communities in the 19th century

Some things do their job so well they are too easily taken for granted: that old refrigerator in the garage, the clock that was a wedding present 35 years ago, the kitchen table that belonged to your grandparents, the bridge you cross over every day on the way to work.

A century ago the Ashtabula County countryside was dotted with workhorses of the wooden bridge world, the simple, inexpensive Town lattice bridge. The design, which uses diagonal timbers held together with wooden pins, was patented in 1820 by Ithiel Town.

Town (1784-1844), was a prominent American architect and civil engineer, as well as a wealthy businessman. Builders were required to pay Town a royalty of $1 to $2 per foot.

Especially popular in New England, these simple, inexpensive bridges could be quickly constructed by relatively unskilled workers using native timber. Given the large number of them built here, they appear to have been especially suited to Ashtabula County’s agrarian economy and the narrow streams and rivers that separated markets from farms. Wagons loaded with hay, grain, fruit and vegetables moved across these stalwart structures during the work week. On Sundays, they opened they opened their arms to church-going and neighbor-visitation traffic. And throughout the long country nights, the bridges stood ready to safely transport the doctor to a back-roads medical emergency.

The transformation to the internal combustion engine brought larger, faster and heavier vehicles to these dusty roads. The writing was on the timbers, but for several decades after trucks replaced wagons and cars supplanted the horse and buggy, these old single-span structures continued to bridge the creeks and eras.

Byways fortunate enough to remain as such in the post-war economy had a much better chance of surviving than those on roads converted to main highways. A survey of the county’s extant Town lattice bridges reveals most of them survived into the era of preservation because they were located on remote, little-traveled byways.

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