The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Covered bridge series

March 2, 2009

Middle Road bridge built in 1868, saved 1984

County, volunteers rehabilitated

Ashtabula County Engineer John Smolen Jr. knew extensive and difficult rehabilitation was a certainty for the Middle Road covered bridge over Conneaut Creek. What he wasn’t planning on was the immediacy of that rehab.

The 152-foot-long Howe truss span suddenly dropped at the north end in January 1984, forcing quick closure of the bridge. The 18-inch drop was a signal that the old bridge’s days were numbered. Indeed, Smolen felt the structure was in danger of collapsing if too much snow accumulated on it that winter.

Ashtabula County was in the grip of a recession that drove the unemployment rate to around 20 percent. Funds were tight, but Ashtabula County commissioners saw value in saving the bridge, and three volunteers — Robert Graf, Dean Horton and a Guy Vorse — came forward to save the charming landmark. They were assisted by four paid college students and several country employees who, during 1984, saved the bridge as they worked under Smolen’s supervision. Thanks to the volunteers, the entire project cost about $50,000.

Smolen, in an article he wrote for the Second Ohio Historic Inventory of Bridges, described the steps taken in shoring up and rehabilitating the bridge.

1) Stabilization. Smolen used an ancient engineering principle to stabilize the bridge at the sagging end. A huge I-beam lever and fulcrum were built with used materials and 17 tons of concrete counterweight, to hold up the damaged end. Cribbing under the bridge was used to stabilize the structure during renovation.

2) Strengthen. As with all the bridge renovations Smolen tackled, a primary concern was making them strong enough for modern traffic, including ambulances and school buses. For Middle Road, Smolen’s approach involved adding two wall-type concrete piers at quarter points. The piers are 3 feet into the bedrock. Their walls were filled by hauling concrete into the bridge in wheelbarrows and pouring it into the forms.

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