The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 2, 2009

Middle Road bridge built in 1868, saved 1984

County, volunteers rehabilitated

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

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.

Adding two piers also allowed Smolen to strengthen the long bridge with treated-timber laminated girders that stretch from the abutments to the piers. The bridge had sufficient floodwater clearance to place these girders below the bridge. The girders are 10.75 inches wide, 31.5 inches deep and 35.5 feet long.

This approach also had the effect of changing the design of the bridge so that only the center span is technically a Howe truss; the laminated girders support the other half.

The rehabilitation also included new floor beams, floor planking, strengthening the lower chords, replacing and enlarging the vertical tension rods, and new shingles on the roof and siding on the entire bridge. The lower chords were upgraded with 3.5 by 11-inch southern yellow pine planks on each side of the chords. The vertical tension rods were upgraded with larger ones, and a laminated distribution beam was added to the center of the bridge for better wheel-load distribution.

White oak was selected for the new floor system, which has 6 by 10-inch timbers and 4 by 10-inch floor planks.

In analyzing the bridge and its issues, Smolen noticed the overhang on the eaves was insufficient. Combined with a list at the north end, water entered the bridge and dripped between the siding boards onto the lower chords. This caused the wood to rot.

The renovation extended the eaves 2 feet to alleviate this problem. The ends were rebuilt in a Greek Revival style to add a touch of class to the bridge.

Originally built in 1868, the Middle Road bridge was given a new lease on life with this renovation. A sister iron bridge, however, was not as fortunate. Smolen says the second structure, which stood to the south of the covered bridge, was replaced with culverts during the renovation process.

A rededication and opening of this bridge were held during the county’s first Covered Bridge Festival, Oct. 13-14, 1984.