34-04-19 turns 150

34-04-19 turns 150

A mile or so from the cottage, as the crow flies, stands the longest legacy covered bridge in Ohio.

The Harpersfield (Township) Covered Bridge crosses the Grand River with two 114-foot wooden spans and a 140-foot-long metal span. Originally, as built in 1868, the bridge was just the two wooden spans. Severe flooding in March 1913 cut a new channel next to the north abutment. The gap was closed by a steel structure the following year.

The contiguous bridges continue to carry motorized and foot traffic across the river at one of the most popular parks in Ashtabula County, Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metro. Park land is on both sides of the river. It is a scenic spot favored for picnics, fishing, wading and traditional string music—the annual Music Along the River in August is a two-day acoustic music festival right at home in the rustic atmosphere. View a Feather Cottage video of the 2017 event here.

2018 marks the 150th birthday of the wood bridge. Few things that were built 150 years ago remain, and even fewer that have been in almost constant use and serving the same purpose. But here is an anomaly, a bridge that is still a bridge, over the same river, carrying people and their conveyances, and linking the south and north sides of the county. Only buildings like the (Old) Ashtabula County Courthouse can claim such continuity of purpose and function over as long a period. These days, the buzzwords in historic preservation are “adaptive re-use.” In the near future, the Harpersfield bridge will face a similar re-use; more about that later.

The Harpersfield Bridge is of the Howe Truss design and uses “X” diagonals in conjunction with iron uprights to form the truss. This design was quite popular as a railroad bridge (yes, they built wooden railroad bridges in rail transportation’s early days in the United States). The design worked well as long as William Howe’s original engineering was adhered to, but not so great when the wood was replaced by iron. The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of Dec. 29, 1876, remains as testimony to the folly of tinkering with an original design.

Harpersfield Ohio Covered Bridge

Harpersfield Covered Bridge, circa 1994. Photo copyrighted Carl E. Feather

The Harpersfield Bridge, the Middle Road Bridge in Conneaut and Mechanicsville Bridge over the Grand River, stand as testimony to William Howe’s engineering acumen, craftsmanship of the builders and county engineers’ commitment to historical preservation. Of course, only the trusses are “original,” and even they have had their repairs over the years. The Harpersfield Covered Bridge underwent renovation several times in its life, including in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when the  state turned it over to Ashtabula County. By then, the State Route 534 bridge to the east was open and efficiently spanning the river without the steep, curvy approach to the north.

The Harpersfield Covered Bridge was nearing 100 years of age when it was bypassed. An anti-covered bridge sentiment had swept through the offices of most county engineers and the old structures were giving way to steel and concrete spans. Perhaps because replacing such a long bridge with an all-steel crossing came as a large expense for a cash-strapped county, the decision was made to fix up and make do with what we had. Later on, in the 1990s, the bridge was again renovated with new siding and, for the first time, a pedestrian walkway that would carry the park visitors safely across without fear of being traumatized by motorized traffic inside the bridge.

Harpersfield Covered Bridge

The Harpersfield Covered Bridge in the 1970s, before the walkway was added.

This crossing occurs in a valley once known as Ransomville; the availability of water power on the Grand River at this spot drew John Ransom and his family from Kirtland to establish an industrial complex there beginning about 1837. Ranson had a woolen factory, gristmill and sawmill at the site, which reached its zenith around 1843. The mills employed 35 to 40 workers, some of who were provided tenement houses by Ransom, who also ran a store for mutual benefit.

Ransom’s prosperity was short-lived; as his fortunes fell, he sought to dispose of his real estate holdings through a $75,000 lottery. “In this the fates were against him, as they seemed to be ever during the later years of his life,” notes “The Williams Brothers 1878 History of Ashtabula County.” In August 1864, Ransom, deserted by his fair weather friends, closed out and moved to Cleveland. Yet his influence lingers in the paintings of his daughter, Caroline, who achieved notoriety as a portrait artist. She had a studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., at which she painted portraits of Civil War generals, and politicians, some of which are in the U.S. Capitol’s art collection.

Caroline Ransom was studying art in Europe in 1868, the year that a new covered bridge replaced the old “Ransom’s Bridge” in her hometown. The cost of the bridge, according to a Geneva Times article in December 1868, was $7,000. Much of that expense was for the abutments, which were the work of Patrick Sullivan. Born in Ireland in 1839, Patrick was drawn to America by his uncle, Michael Flahavan, a stone mason. Patrick worked for his uncle from 1863 to 1878, when Michael Flahavan died.

Patrick purchased a section of the quarry at Thompson Ledges and ran it until his death, of stonecutter’s disease,  in June 1910. The sandstone for the abutments came from this quarry, and although the north abutment was lost in the 1913 flood, the south end abutment of sandstone blocks remains steadfast.

Harpersfield Covered Bridge accident

In 1910 this steam tractor crashed through the bridge deck and into the river.

As with all covered bridges, the Harpersfield Covered Bridge suffered at the hands of mechanization. Both farm equipment and highway traffic took its toll on the road. One of the most famous of historical photographs depicts a steam tractor hanging down through the bridge’s deck.

Ralph Wright was driving the tractor from the Wright Brothers’ Basket Factory in Saybrook Township to the south side of the river when the incident occurred. Wright planned to pick up a load of logs from the south side of the river, but the tractor itself was too much for the old bridge’s deck, and it crashed through and into the river. The tractor’s wheels were flattened and workers Art Gleason and Harry Wilson replaced the wheels while the tractor was still in the river.

Flooding on Grand River 1913

The flood of March 1913 left the bridge stranded in the Grand River as the river cut a new channel to the north. A steel span would be necessary.

The floods of March 1913 nearly did in the old bridge; photographs of the flooding at Harpersfield show the water at deck level, but the 45-year-old bridge held. Elsewhere in the county, there was extensive damage to covered bridges. According to the minutes of the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners that year, damage to county bridge by flooding exceeded $100,000. Bridges damaged or destroyed were at:

  • Hines Road, Rome Township, over the Grand, 80 feet long, $15,000;
  • Callender Road, Rome Township, Grand River, 100 feet long, $15,000;
  • Schaffersville, Morgan Township, Grand River, 100 feet long, $15,000;
  • Cemetery bridge, Morgan Township/Rock Creek, 60 feet long, $10,000;
  • Mechanicsville, Austinburg Township, Grand River, 100 feet long, $15,000;
  • Farnham, Conneaut, 1,000 feet of bridges and related infrastructure, $20,000;
  • Clyde Hill Bridge, Harpersfield Township, 100 feet, $15,000.

The Callender Road Covered Bridge deserves special note. It was located at the site of a mill and, judging from post cards, created a very bucolic scene.

Callender Road Covered Bridge

The covered bridge at Callender Road fell to the flood of 1913 and was replaced by a steel bridge that still stands.

It was replaced by a steel bridge at the same site, built by the Massillon Bridge Company of Massillon, Ohio (the flood, while devastating to the state, was good for its steel and bridge industry). This bride still stands and is noted as a historically significant structure by bridge fans. Unique features include its skew, through plate girder approaches and v-lacing on the top chord and end post (HistoricBridges.org).

Bids to construct a steel bridge north of the Harpersfield Covered Bridge were received in June 1868. The range was from $6,667.06 from King Bridge Company to the lowest and best bid of $5,181.47 from the Riverside Bridge Co. of Martins Ferry, Ohio, for a steel through truss. The project was awarded the same day, with completion to be just 120 days later. (It would appear that the Harpersfield bridge is the last of Riverside’s work remaining in use; visit Bridgehunter.com for references.)

County Engineer J.S. Matson told commissioners in May that the outlook for obtaining the steel for these bridges was not good; they could expect a delay of at least six months. Riverside was unable to meet the completion date and on Nov. 3, 1868, the commissioners instructed the board’s clerk to write to Riverside and find out why the bridges “were not in place.”

Obviously, the bridge was eventually constructed. It is still standing, 104 years after it was erected, as is the wooden section, 150 years after it was raised.

Middle Road Conneaut Covered Bridge

The Middle Road Covered Bridge shares the same birth year, 1868, with the Harpersfield Bridge. It’s also a Howe Truss.

1868 was a good year for covered bridge construction in Ashtabula County. The Middle Road, Root Road and Doyle Road covered bridges also date from 1868. Like Harpersfield, the members of that 150-year-old club have been rehabilitated over the years. With ongoing care and respect, they can be expected to last many more years, perhaps see their bicentennials.

Harpersfield Covered Bridge circa 1929

The grand lady of Ashtabula County’s covered bridges, captured in a county engineer’s photo from the late 1920s. The river was a popular fishing spot back then, as well.

Not so for Harpersfield, however. Ashtabula County Engineer Tim Martin tells me that The Queen and her steel prince will be replaced with a new two-lane, double-walkway, three-span, two-pier wooden covered bridge.

“The necessity of the bridge replacement is due to excessive deterioration of the original wood members, as well as its narrow width and multiple piers,” stated the engineer in an email.

As to the timing, Tim says the target is Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 1, 2020. “So if the project stays on schedule it would be bid between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021,” he says. “Truss would most likely be a Pratt. It is certainly the most efficient. Design of the bridge will be in house. We still plan to salvage a portion of the old bridge to be moved to the park.”

And thus will there be a new Queen, a new “second-longest” covered bridge in Ohio, even longer than the existing bridge, when that happens. But it won’t be a Howe truss, leaving only Middle and Mechanicsville covered bridges as example of that design in Ashtabula County, Ohio.

Harpersfield covered bridge at night.

The Harpersfield Covered Bridge at night. No, it’s not illuminated by flood lamps; the bridge was photographed using portable led video lighting, painted across the surface during a series of exposures combined in Photoshop. The low level of the river allowed wading into the stream to get close enough for the “painting” exposures. The dam is in blue behind the bridge.

Covered Bridge photographers may want to plan accordingly. At best, there may be only three years left to document the structure in its current location.

Sources for this post include the minutes of the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners and “A History of Unionville and Harpersfield Township within the Unionville Area, State of Ohio,” published by Mary Jeanne McRoberts in 1998 for the Unionville Bicentennial.



1 Comment

  • Janis Salcfas Posted November 10, 2018 3:38 pm

    Carl, I just found out that they plan to take out the covered bridge and put it on dry land in the park area, and then build a regular 2-lane bridge across the river there. Is this true?

    I don’t know whose brilliant idea this was, and the Harpersfield Trustees seem to be keeping this plan all hush hush but if I lived there, I would be raising a HUGE fuss about this. I can’t believe more people aren’t up in arms about this…perhaps they just don’t know but SOMETHING has to be done to stop this plan! Its not like they have enough traffic to warrent this for crying out loud! The people that drive down there do so specifically to drive over that covered bridge, if they need to get somewhere fast, they already have the 534 bridge to go across! I am absolutely stunned about this! If they have enough money to build a whole new bridge, surely they have enough money to do any repairs that the covered bridge may need. I just can’t believe they wanna do this! What are they thinking?

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