The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 21, 2009

Graham Road bridge has traveling in its old timbers

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer - cfeather@starbeacon.com

PIERPONT TOWNSHIP — Bob Benson walks the length of the Graham Road covered bridge and points to a vertical post split from the bottom. To the best of his recollection, that’s the post that his brother Frank Benson hit with a 1936 Oldsmobile on the day Frank got his driver’s license.

“He got his license in the morning and took out one of the vertical uprights that afternoon,” says Benson, who grew up on a Stanhope-Kelloggsville Road farm a short distance from the East Branch of the Ashtabula River.

The Graham Road covered bridge stands a few yards off the namesake road in what used to be Benson’s side yard. In 1971, he and his late wife Helen donated about a third of an acre on which the county could relocate the bridge. The parcel is an Ashtabula County Metropark, one of two with a covered bridge as its centerpiece. The other is in Harpersfield Township.

Benson, who has lived on Graham Road since the late 1940s, said the bridge was never strong enough to carry the loads farmers needed to haul across the stream. Back when he was a boy, there was a gravel pit operation near Route 7. If a team pulling a wagonful of gravel had to cross the stream, it would descend the hill on a spur and ford the East Branch rather than risk crossing the bridge with the heavy load.

He recalls the county testing the bridge’s mettle annually and then posting the weight limit. The test was conducted with a dump truck loaded with stone and slowly driven across the old bridge. “They’d watch and see how much the bridge sagged,” Benson says.

By 1970, the old bridge was seriously antiquated and pegged for replacement.

“It was weak,” Benson says. “It was so restricted, they had to restrict the height (of traffic entering it) with steel beams. It was under 8 feet. Farmers were complaining about it.”

The options were to move, burn or reroute it, not a practical solution. Bob and his wife didn’t want to see it burned, so they offered the parcel, and the county accepted.

In the summer of 1971, cribbing was built under the bridge, which was raised onto rails and rollers. The bridge was rolled off its embankments and then moved to the new site, using house-moving carts. The county laid eight prestressed beams 66 feet in length for the bridge’s new foundation. Several years later, the bridge was rehabilitated by the county. The new siding and roof gave the old bridge a new lease on life as a picnic shelter and tourist attraction.

The Town lattice bridge had a span of 81 feet when it crossed the river and an overall length of 97 feet.

The bridge’s latest relocation fits well with its itinerant nature, as it started life in Rome Township sometime prior to 1913. A flood that year washed out the bridge and sent it downstream a mile, where it was retrieved. For whatever reason, the bridge was allocated to the Graham Road crossing rather than being returned to its original location.

It’s at that point Benson’s family became involved with the bridge. His grandfather Albert “A.D.” Benson got the job of assembling it at the new location.

“He’d been a farmer and lumberman,” says Benson of his grandfather’s background.

Benson, who was born in 1922, says his grandfather died when he was very young, but he heard the story of how A.D. ran into difficulty reassembling the structure. He says an old bridge builder was called in to assist, and pointed out that they were attempting to assemble the timbers upside down.

An uncle, Herb Munger, also had a hand in assembling the bridge. Benson says Munger cut the hickory treenails or pegs that secure the diagonal timbers of the trusses. It’s likely Benson and his siblings, who grew up just down the road from the bridge, carved their initials in these old timbers, as so many others have done over the years.

With all that family connection, it’s easy to understand why Benson offered to donate the land. Well into his 80s, he still mows the grass around the bridge and takes pride in its history and appearance. He says a day seldom passes that the bridge does not get at least one visitor, and on Covered Bridge Festival weekend, he has had as many as 150 motorcyclists stop at one time.

He can think of at least seven or eight weddings that have been held in the bridge, including a New Year’s Day ceremony when the temperature was around zero. Bob assists with events at the bridge by running a power cord to the structure if electricity is needed.

He says most of the bridge visitors are considerate of his property. “Once in a while during Covered Bridge Festival, you’ll find people who assume the whole property belongs to them,” he says.

Benson says the fishing hole around the new bridge draws people to the little park, as well.

“There was a fellow who parked up on top of the hill and pulled in so his truck was facing the bridge,” Benson says. “He didn’t put the truck in gear, and it rolled down the hill and hit the abutment (of the new bridge).”