By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer - firstname.lastname@example.org
In an era when youngsters played outdoors and having fun consumed more human calories than foreign oil, Sheffield Township’s Benetka Road hill provided an ideal spot for sled riding.
A pair of well maintained runners and unsalted road surface practically ensured that the sled would make it to the covered bridge, a cherished landmark in the community.
“That was our sledding hill in the winter and our swimming hole in the summer,” says Tim Wing, who grew up on a farm just south of the bridge and owns the flats around it.
“It was part of our lives growing up,” Wing continues. “We swam in the swimming hole just east of the bridge every summer from May until September. The bridge was always there above us. We camped out under the approaches with the spiders. It was part of our lives.”
Thanks to aggressive road maintenance, it is nearly impossible to find the long, steep stretch covered with enough snow and ice to make a sledding attempt worth the effort. And in our sanitized world, youngsters do most of their swimming in backyard pools or chlorinated public venues. But the bridge remains, surrounded by cornfields and forest, a quaint time tunnel to Tim Wing’s childhood, and that of his ancestors, as well.
An 87-year-old Sheffield Township resident who did not want to be identified shares the history of this area, as it was related to him by his grandfather and others. He said that, at one time, the flats around the bridge was known as Clark’s Mill, so named for the large grist mill that stood on the south side of the bridge. A dam upstream confined the Ashtabula River for a long distance.
This mill burned at an unknown date prior to the resident’s arrival on the scene.
Catherine Ellsworth, in her history of Ashtabula County (self-published, 1976), wrote: “In 1878 there were four mills in (Sheffield Township), the largest being erected on the Ashtabula River near Benetka Road. It had been erected as a saw mill in 1829, expanding in 1840 to a flouring mill. It was completely rebuilt in the mid-1880s, but has long since disappeared from the scene.”
The long-time resident said his grandfather told him that when he was 12 years old, in 1876, an old wooden platform bridge spanned the river. But while his grandfather was crossing the bridge with a load of wheat destined for the mill, the deck gave way.
The covered bridge was constructed shortly thereafter. The construction of a sturdier, more reliable crossing at this point ties into the rebuilding of the mill, an investment justified by the improved access.
The resident’s grandfather told him the bridge was built by a Jim Rogers of Gageville, who built other covered bridges in the area.
The 1880 Census confirms the existence and occupation of this person. In that Census, James H. Rogers, 63, listed his occupation as carpenter. Born in New York, Rogers was married to Rachel.
“He made up most of the covered bridge in his shop over there,” said the long-time resident. “He was an expert at it.”
Volunteer labor was used to erect the bridge over the river.
“He told them not to bring a saw, they wouldn’t need it,” the resident said, referring to the quality of the pre-fabrication. The bridge was put together with tree nails, or pins.
“Some of them thought he was kind of a gruff old guy, he thought he had to be first sergeant,” the resident continued.
Looking at the timber in the bridge, the resident observes that two types of sawmills were used to cut it. Radial cut marks on the timbers leave tell-tale marks of a circular saw. The pattern left behind on other timbers suggest the work of a vertical saw powered by water.
Although he can’t date the incident to a specific year, the long-time resident says a terrible storm blew through the area one summer when “two tornadoes came together over Lake Erie.” The resulting flood washed the bridge downstream until it became lodged against a huge maple tree. The bridge was disassembled and returned to its original crossing.
Another story relating to that storm has one of the residents of the valley riding around on horseback and rescuing victims from their homes.
As to why this road is named Benetka and not Clark’s Mill, the long-time resident says that’s always been an issue for residents of the road. The Benetka family lived at the south end of the road, and those at the north end felt it ought to have the Clark name.
Most published sources set the construction date of the Benetka Road closer to 1900 than to 1878; perhaps the circa 1900 date relates to the re-construction following the storm. One clue to its more youthful date was the use of four cut-stone blocks for the abutments, a more modern approach to construction, and perhaps installed after the river claimed whatever abutments were there previously. The north abutment was replaced with concrete when the bridge was renovated in 1985; the south abutment was reinforced.
The bridge is a single span of 138 feet. Its World Guide to Covered Bridges number is 35-04-12.
When Tim Wing heard that county engineer John Smolen planned to renovate the old bridge, he offered to bring in a railroad car of rough-cut redwood from the West Coast. Wing, who was using redwood on his home-construction projects, offered the materials to the county at cost. The redwood has weathered and given the bridge a very distinctive color.
County workers performed the 1985 renovation, which included the addition of laminated arches for additional strength. The arch is 9 inches wide, 38 inches deep and constructed from 1-inch yellow poplar.
The $50,000 renovation raised the bridge by three feet. Floor beams were replaced and a new deck installed over them. The bridge’s appearance was changed substantially as a result of these renovations, but it remains as much a charmer as it was back in Tim Wing’s childhood.
The approach to the bridge, which creates a blind spot, was not changed with the renovation, and Wing says he still beeps his horn as he approaches it. Motorists who recall traveling the county’s byways in a slower-paced era may remember how certain bridges had “BEEP HORN” signs posted near the portals to these one-lane structures situated on curves.
Then again, that goes back to the days of sled riding on Benetka Road hill and swimming in the Ashtabula River, simpler times gone but not forgotten.