By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer - email@example.com
MONROE TOWNSHIP – Ashtabula County was gripped by recession and high unemployment in the early 1980s when County Engineer John Smolen looked to the past for a way to light the county’s future.
In 1983 Smolen led the effort that built over Conneaut Creek the first covered bridge to be constructed in Ohio since 1920, when wooden bridges gave way to steel and concrete structures.
State Road in Monroe Township was chosen as the site for this honor. The bridge, which came with a $200,000 price tag, was made affordable by county commissioners’ clever use of Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) money. Commissioners Pete Iarocci, Harold Christian and Alfred Mackey submitted the project, which would bring a handful of jobs to the distressed county while replacing an old steel bridge across the creek.
County Engineer John Smolen designed the bridge and supervised construction after the crew chief quit a few weeks into the project. Smolen stepped in, splitting his time between the bridge construction site in the mornings and his office in the afternoons.
In an interview for Western Reserve Magazine, Smolen told writer Jean Lyon “This thing (the bridge) has changed my life. I like my job and have wonderful, fond memories. I love going out there (the bridge site) everyday. There is no substitute for accomplishment, you know the work ethic. I like working with heavy timber (and) used to hang around saw mills as a kid.”
Smolen selected the Town lattice design for the bridge, a proven design used on nine other extant covered bridges in Ashtabula County. Timber sources were treated southern pine, whitewood and native oak (floor beams). It required 97,000 board feet of lumber. CETA paid $60,000 of the materials cost.
The crossing required two spans of 70 feet each to create a bridge with a total length of just under 157 feet. It has a clear width of 171¼2 feet and height of 141¼2 feet.
The bridge’s World Guide to Covered Bridges number is 35-04-58.
A crew of seven workers learned construction skills while earning paychecks as they built the bridge over a five-month period. One hundred inquiries were made for those seven positions.
Mark Mollick filled one of them. Mollick, 20 at the time, was unemployed and had an interest in carpentry.
“My father was a carpenter,” says Mollick. “He taught me how to be a carpenter, but this was totally out of the realm of normal carpentry.
Mollick recalls the project as being “like a big Tinker Toy box. They built the deck first and built one wall on top of that and stood it up, then built the other wall and stood it up. We put the roof on and the ends on.”
He says John Smolen explained every step of the construction and the engineering behind the construction. He also learned how operate a variety of equipment.
“That job taught me a lot,” he says. “We did a little bit of everything on that job, operate heavy equipment, use every kind of tool you can imagine.”
Mollick says the bridge was constructed on one side of the gap and, for him and the other workers, seeing their work moved over the stream was one of the most memorable aspects of the job.
Set on machine rollers, the bridge was moved toward the first abutment and lined up with temporary I beams set between the abutment and center pier. A winch truck provided by a house mover was used to get the bridge to the abutment, then a crane in the river took over the work of getting the bridge onto the pier and abutments.
The mid-stream cement pier was built by county highway employees, who also resurfaced the abutments and ran the heavy equipment required for the construction. Had CETA money not been available for construction, the bridge would have cost the county about a half-million dollars.
The completed bridge was dedicated Nov. 6, 1983. It would become the catalyst for construction of four more new covered bridges in Ashtabula County, as well as throughout the state of Ohio as Smolen proved the viability of the antiquated yet reliable means of crossing a stream. Even more significant for Ashtabula County’s tourism, the bridge ignited interest in the county as Ohio’s covered bridge capital and proved the drawing power of these barns on abutments.
During construction of the bridge, security guards counted 300 visitors to the work site weekly. As part of the county’s bridge tour, it continues to attract its share of admirers, including Mollick, who last visited it about three years ago. He says he plans to take his daughter to the bridge one day soon and tell her about the role he had in constructing it.
“It was like building a piece of history,” he says. “It was definitely interesting in every aspect.”
While some visitors have left their initials in the timbers, Mollick says you won’t find his on there.
“It was too pretty to cut into,” he says.