The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 16, 2009

‘First Covered Bridge’ fondly recalled

Construction of Smolen-Gulf continued tradition of covered bridge at site

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

It was known as “The First Covered Bridge.”

Not because it was first to be built in the county — as for documented bridges, that honor would go to the twin-span Morgan Township bridge, dated to 1832 — but because the Crooked Gulf covered bridge was the first in a series of bridges along the Ashtabula River.

The bridge, number 35-04-01, was located at the foot of State Road, the spot where the low-level bridge stood before the Smolen-Gulf covered bridge was constructed. The bridge was built in 1867 and was 120 feet long. It spanned 100 feet and had an east abutment of stone with concrete wings; the west one was concrete.

The bridge appears to have been a Town lattice type. It was high above the river and, therefore, did not suffer the injustices of periodic flooding its upstream cousin had to suffer.

Crooked Gulf lived up to its name, situated on a sharp turn in the curvy road as it descended into the valley from the east side. Historian Alice Bliss described it as a “tunnel” that seemed to terminate at the perpendicular wall of shale. After crossing the bridge, the road dipped once more and leveled out for a short distance along Indian Trails Park at a popular spot for picnics.

Indeed, the bridge was for decades the focal point of a recreation area that included a popular swimming hole and a broad rocky area along the river where campfires could be built and picnics enjoyed. It was an ideal location for a covered bridge.

In 1945, the structure was reinforced with a support at midpoint to purchase a few more years of service from its old timbers. The bridge was slated for replacement, a process that began in 1948.

The new bridge was built adjacent to the covered bridge, with the new bridge’s west abutment farther upstream. The approach angle thus was altered and the blind spot and sharp curve eliminated. The center pier was built first, followed by the new west abutment.

After the bridge succumbed to progress in 1949, there were still 26 covered bridges left in the county.

Some 55 years later, the iron bridge that replaced the Crooked Gulf bridge was removed, ironically, to facilitate construction of another covered bridge, 613 feet long and soaring 90 feet above the river. The bridge, constructed over a two-year span, is the nation’s longest covered bridge. Smolen-Gulf is so named to recognize its engineer, John Smolen Jr., and the forgotten crossing that once spanned the river at this point.

Built by Union Industrial Contractors, the Smolen-Gulf Bridge has four equal spans of Pratt truss design. Each section weighed 165 tons and was built either on the bank or in the valley, then lifted, or lifted and rolled, into place, where the sections were finished.

The bridge was fabricated by Sentinel Structures Inc., of Wisconsin, and has more than 670,000 board-feet of southern yellow pine in it. There are 1,250 pieces of 18-gauge metal roofing on the bridge.

Preparing the chasm for the structure was a huge undertaking. The road was straightened in the process of building the bridge and, on the Plymouth Township side, a cut made into the Gulf wall and an embankment built to reduce the height and length of the gap. The embankment required more than 150,000 cubic yards of material.

Constructing the three piers required excavation of 80,000 cubic yards of earth for the footers. The piers use 293 tons of galvanized rebar encased in more than 2,000 cubic yards of class C concrete.

More than 30,000 labor-hours went into building the bridge, yet no lost-time injuries were reported.

The Smolen-Gulf Bridge was dedicated Aug. 26, 2008, and opened the following month. It is bridge number 35-04-64.