The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 3, 2009

Plymouth Township man recalls construction of Caine Road bridge

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

The first time Ashtabula County engineer John Smolen built a new covered bridge in Ashtabula County, he built it on dry land and then pulled the bridge across the State Road gap.

For his second new bridge, Caine Road, Smolen once again had workers build the bridge on dry land. This time, however, he brought the river to the bridge rather than the bridge to the river.

“We cut the channel through and put the channel under the bridge,” says Robert Ellsworth, who worked on the crew that built the bridge in 1986.

The Caine Road bridge, number 35-04-61, was built in honor of Ashtabula County’s 175th birthday. It is 124 feet long and crosses the west branch of the Ashtabula River in Pierpont Township.

Smolen chose the Pratt Truss design for the bridge. The construction marked the first time a Pratt Truss bridge had been built in Ohio, but it would not be the last. Smolen chose the design for Giddings Road, and again for Smolen-Gulf, the nation’s longest covered bridge.

Thomas and Caleb Pratt patented this design in 1844. It was popular with bridge builders throughout the early 20th century, but evidently not in Ohio.

Smolen said he chose the design because it provided a good balance of efficiency, cost and strength. Unlike future bridges, which would be prefabricated from laminated timber, the Caine Road bridge was built on site, except for the roof trusses, said Ellsworth.

Laid off from the Bow Socket, Ellsworth had signed on with the Highway Department about a year before the Caine Road project. One of his first jobs was working on the Benetka Road renovation in 1985.

Ellsworth said the Caine Road project started with just two workers, himself and another man, whose name he could not recall. The crew would swell to six carpenters as the work progressed.

The first step in construction was to build a crib, upon which the bridge would be built.

“We built the floor, then the north wall and the south wall (on top of the floor),” Ellsworth said.

Cranes were brought in to raise the walls, starting with the south one. Ellsworth remembers the day well.

“That evening, my father (Austin) died,” Ellsworth said. “He had been there (at the construction site) that day and watched us raise the first wall.”

Ellsworth said the roof trusses were built off site.

“Probably over to Jefferson,” he said. “They were big, heavy things. John (Smolen) thought we were going to be able to push them around by hand, but we had to have a crane.”

The roof of the bridge was originally oak shingles cut by members of the Ashtabula County Antique Engine Club. Ellsworth spent several days treating the oak blocks with anti-freeze in an attempt to preserve the shingles that would be cut from the wood. But the shingles failed and had to be replaced with modern materials in the mid-1990s. The Covered Bridge Festival Committee donated $5,000 to the county engineer for the replacement project.

The bridge, which cost the county $150,000, was dedicated Oct. 12, 1986, at the Covered Bridge Festival.

Visitors to the bridge will notice a pond nearby. Ellsworth says the far wall of that pond marks the bank of the river’s former channel, which was rerouted under the bridge after the construction was completed.

As part of the project, the approach to the bridge was made much straighter, but he personally wishes the engineer had left just a little curve in it so the beauty of the bridge’s sides would be visible as motorists approach the portal.

Ellsworth says he did not leave any marks in the timbers identifying himself as one of the builders, but he knows which parts are his unique workmanship.

“I was the one who fitted all the sheathing on the west end,” he said. “But as far as making a personal mark on it, I didn’t.”