The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 12, 2009

Suspicious fire claimed county’s ‘best covered bridge’

Old Plank Road bridge stood near Trumbull County line

The Old Plank Road, made of lumber, ran between Lake Erie and Pittsburgh, an incredible accomplishment as well testimony to the abundance of timber in the Western Reserve two centuries ago.

Although the namesake planks rotted away more than a century ago, the road’s name remains in some sections of the region. In Windsor, it is also known as South Windsor Road, and was home to a Forgotten Crossing of recent departure.

The bridge crossed a branch of the Grand River near the Trumbull County line and three miles southwest of Orwell. In the pioneer road’s heyday, a toll booth once stood near the site of the bridge.

It was built around 1870, when the a notice for bids was first advertised in the Geneva Times. The span was 87 feet, the length 103 feet and the roadway 14.5 feet wide. It was a Town lattice structure, set on abutments without a center pier. On one side of this bridge was a small steel span with arched sides that crossed a smaller channel.

This swampy area, just east of Fortney Road, was nicknamed “Frog Alley,” and became a landing zone for African-American families from the Cleveland area seeking cheap land on which to farm and build a homestead.

Despite the frequent flooding that affects this are to this day, the old covered bridge’s demise came from other sources.

In 1957 a newspaper article told of how large trucks were still squeezing through the low clearance of the bridge, just 10 feet and 11 inches, the lowest of any covered bridge in the county. On at least one occasion, a motorist reported finding roof timbers in the road, evidently torn loose by a truck too large for the passage. The highway department repaired the bridge, but its days were numbered, not by traffic, but arsonists.

In June 1963 someone attempted to set the bridge on fire by igniting oil-soaked rags left in the middle of the floor. The fire was reported and no serious damage suffered. In 1969 the county highway department put a new roof and siding on the bridge, improved the approaches and straightened the frame. David Weir, who was county engineer at the time, declared it was “probably the best covered bridge in the county.”

In early September 1970, the bridge burned to the abutments in a 2 a.m. fire of suspicious origin. A strong odor of gasoline was reported by the first to respond to the scene.

A very small portion of this bridge was preserved, however. When the renovation work was done in 1969, Weir had workers salvage the best timbers and siding and used them to construct a covered bridge interior along one wall of his office.

The bridge still exists in Weir’s former office, now a judges’ storage room on the second floor of the Ashtabula County Courthouse Annex.