The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 12, 2009

Mill Creek crossings

For Peter Betch and old Ned, stream was site of harrowing experience

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

Mill Creek is a busy little stream that meanders around Jefferson and several neighboring townships before it finally finds an outlet in the Grand River.

In the history of covered bridge construction in Ashtabula County, this little stream necessitated at least seven covered bridges, two of them of recent vintage. This week and next, we’ll look at six of those bridges — the extinct March Road or Route 167 bridge was visited several weeks ago.

Mill Creek’s tentacles reach all the way to Dorset and Denmark townships. On the west side of the hamlet of Dorset once stood a small covered bridge built in 1870 and removed in 1930.

The realignment and widening of Route 307 brought about the bridge’s demise, although the structure was doomed years earlier by the coming of the automobile to these rural roads.

Back then, the old highway that connected Dorset to Jefferson took a sharp turn as it approached the little bridge from the west. The combination of a narrow span and sharp turn created a scenario for accidents as gasoline-powered speed replaced the horse on the highway.

“ANOTHER ACCIDENT AT DORSET BRIDGE” shouted the headline in an Aug. 31, 1926, edition of the Ashtabula Sentinel.

“The sharp turn at the west entrance of the Dorset covered bridge was the scene of another auto accident Sunday night shortly after ten o’clock. The 1918 Buick touring car owned by Roy Smith, of Russell St., Ashtabula, crashed into the railing, and Smith suffered internal injuries. Miller’s ambulance was called, and the injured man was taken to the Ashtabula General Hospital. With Smith in the front seat was another man, who escaped injury.

“The car was badly damaged. The front right wheel was broken, the axle bent, windshield broken, and the entire right side of the car was damaged. The wreckage was taken to the garage of H.J. Cosner.”

In the summer of 1930, the little bridge was eliminated as a new steel-truss structure was built on the realigned highway. The new bridge cost about $25,000 and was built by the White Construction Co., which also had the contract to remove the old bridge.

“The construction will include a super-elevated curve to eliminate the sharp flat curve that has resulted in several auto accidents in the past few years,” noted a March 11, 1930, article in the Jefferson Gazette. “Several years ago, a large touring car with several occupants failed to negotiate the curve, crashed through the guardrail, over the bank and into the creek. All escaped without serious injury.”

That same article noted that bridge construction that summer would also replace the Route 322 covered bridge in Wayne Township over Pymatuning Creek, and the covered bridge over the Ashtabula River at Gageville, on present-day Route 193.

The Dorset bridge has been assigned the number 35-04-36. Photographs of the bridge show it was unique in that it was painted white; most of the county’s covered bridges were not afforded such protection.

It was a short bridge, as is its cousin to the north, the extant South Denmark Road bridge. Crossing Mill Creek at a community once known as Williams Corners, this little bridge is the county’s shortest at just 81 feet, with a 76-foot span. The Town lattice structure was built in 1890.

Like several other covered bridges in the county, the bridge is said to have once stood elsewhere but was removed by flood or purpose, and rebuilt over the lazy stream. History has failed to record the original location of the bridge, if that is indeed its story.

As with the Dorset bridge, this little structure was inadequate for modern traffic, yet it managed to get by for decades. It was finally bypassed in 1975 by a more efficient, two-lane crossing that improved the road/ bridge alignment.

The bridge was preserved for future restoration, work that was eventually performed under county engineer John Smolen’s master plan to rehabilitate all 12 of the county’s legacy bridges.

That work allowed the bridge to be reopened to light traffic, although most people enjoy this little gem by parking at the end of the gravel road and walking through the structure.

Exploring this bridge and docile creek, it is hard to imagine a time when this stream ran deep and furious one summer night more than a century ago. The story of that flood was preserved by the late Walter Jack, a writer/photographer who worked for the Erie Times in the mid-20th century.

Jack, who possessed a keen sense of the historic and intrinsic value of the county’s covered bridges, preserved this story of the Williams Corner crossing. The story is reprinted from a draft copy, with slight editing:

Old Ned & Betch

“Giddap, Ned, we vill drownd,” cried Peter Betch, remembered by older Pierpont folks, as he was caught in the swirling waters of Mill Creek at Williams Corners, South Denmark, one midnight three-quarters of a century ago.

It will be remembered before the days of the Model T, (at) the low-grade railroad that parallels Mill Creek north of Dorset, there was a convenient detour through Mill Creek. This accommodated farmers and travelers who drove through the creek to water their horse or horses, or to stand in the shallow pool to set their loose buggy and wagon tires (wheels became dry and shrunken during hot summer weather).

“Mein Gott,” or something akin to it, the old man groaned as he tried to urge old Ned, his horse, through swollen Mill Creek. Peter Betch found himself inexplicably in a rushing torrent of water that reached the box of his one-horse wagon. As heat lightning played in the sky, giving illumination, the old man could not conceive how the stream became a raging torrent threatening to sweep him, his wagon box and his box of peddling goods right from his wagon. Old Ned stood immovable. That Mill Creek would become a river was inexplicable, as the old man said later. He had started from his home on Licking Street, Pierpont, for a big circuit through Denmark, almost to Jefferson, and around back home. This would take him through or around the Williams Corners covered bridge.

It had been a delightful day. There were thunderheads in the sky to the north, to the west and again to the south, but as he called (upon) farm folks, offering pencils, writing paper, needles, pins and books, he had not seen a drop of rain. Old Ned fared well all that day, for during calls he nibbled grass at the side of the road or munched oats carried by his owner in a tin pail.

Peter Betch, one of the kindest of men, carried with him in his big box of goods several copies of a book published soon after the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The old peddler had some difficulty with his eyes, which prevented his reading aloud of passages of the book to a customer. His language was a handicap due to accent, although he was above-average in intelligence. He would turn to certain pages and pictures and would suggest that the prospect read of the terrifying experiences of the survivors.

“It vos like der Johnstown flood,” he afterward said, and “Ich denk ich vos im die flood,” telling of his experience that night.

Old Ned would not budge, so Peter climbed out in the swirling waters, felt his way to the horse head by feeling along the thills. Taking Ned by the bits, old Peter said “Kum old Ned,” and with a lunge Ned pulled Peter through the deepest (section of the crossing) to the more solid ground. A flash of lightning revealed the flats down Mill Creek covered with water and a raging stream pouring through, underneath the bridge.

Peter led his faithful horse back up on the road. Each shook himself, and with Peter on his spring seat, old Ned, knowing the road, proceeded homeward while his owner dozed, only to wake up and wonder if his stock of goods had been wet or damaged. They were found to be dry.

The story is easily accountable for one of the big thunderheads down Dorset way produced a local cloudburst swelling Mill Creek to a turbulent river. This Betch did not realize until he was caught in the swollen stream.

Next week: More Mill Creek crossings.