Covered bridge straddling Balto., Harford counties gets overhaul

Jerusalem Mill, a small enclave in northern Baltimore County, promises visitors a Williamsburg-in-miniature experience, with one attraction the Virginia destination cannot offer. This 18th-century mill town boasts a l9th-century covered bridge, one that still handles nearly 500 vehicles a day.

"Most people are blithely unaware of our little step back in time," said Chris Scovill, village museum curator. "The covered bridge is the press agent for the village."

The 90-foot-long Jericho Road bridge spans Little Gunpowder Falls between Baltimore and Harford counties. It remains sturdy and safe but is showing signs of its 146 years. Some timbers are deteriorating, the roof leaks a bit, and it needs a fresh coat of fire-retardant paint, preferably classic barn red instead of its current pinkish brown, Scovill said. It is to undergo nearly $2 million in repairs next year.

The bulk of the funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration's National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program, along with a nearly $80,000 contribution to be shared by the two counties that jointly own the bridge.

Restoration work will mean traffic detours around the only covered bridge in the two counties and one of six that survive across the state. Most motorists will have to drive about a mile and a half out of their way to a crossing on Jerusalem Road.

Visitors will still be able to hike the trail from the village while the bridge is closed. From the banks of the waterway, onlookers can marvel at the intricate wooden trusses that form the high-pitched roof.

"This bridge is fascinating historically because it shows that old technology still works," said David Fidler, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Public Works Department.

The bridge, which was built just after the Civil War, has undergone minor repairs recently, and a major overhaul about 30 years ago reinforced it with steel beams. Local residents said the upgrade made the ride a bit bumpier and noisier and opened the 15-foot-wide, single-lane span to more traffic, including trucks, school buses and fire equipment. Even now, the bridge has a 12-foot, 1-inch height limit.

Through the years, the bridge has received an overall satisfactory rating in annual inspections. The fire-retardant paint has paid for itself during at least three failed arson attempts, including one when Halloween miscreants pilfered a scarecrow and lit it on the bridge.

"The scorch marks are still there, but the bridge didn't burn," said Ted Josenhans, who has lived next door to it for more than 50 years.

He crosses the bridge several times a day, but welcomes the repairs.

"I am all in favor because this is part of our heritage," he said. "Over the years, we have gotten lax about preservation and way too interested in modernization."

Fidler said no Public Works employee can recall any discussions about replacing the bridge with a larger, more modern structure.

"If those discussions happened, they are not on the record," he said. "It would have been long ago, when people were less sensitive about the historic past. Even then, there would have been a big brouhaha."

John McGrain, retired historic planner for Baltimore County, said the covered bridges that survive offer great examples of American engineering and ingenuity. They were built of the best hardwoods available to protect the decking from the rigors of weather, to offer travelers a rudimentary, though brief, refuge and possibly to give horses, skittish about the crossing, the appearance of a barn-like structure.

"These are beautiful, sentimental structures that today offer us lessons in engineering principles from those who built strictly with wood," he said.

The Jericho bridge is not long enough to spook travelers, but many covered spans are lengthy, dark passages that over the decades have spawned rumors of specters. Scovill said he hears one question about the bridge more than any other: "Is it haunted?"

He has traversed it at least twice daily for nearly 20 years at all hours and can attest that it most certainly harbors no ghosts and definitely none from the antebellum era. A brief Civil War action — a Confederate cavalry unit raided the town's general store in 1864 — predates construction of the bridge by a year.

Visitors to the village, which is the headquarters for Gunpowder State Park, can see the general store, a blacksmith shop, a museum, the mill and a factory that produced gun stocks for the militia in the American Revolution. The Friends of Jerusalem Village, a volunteer group, are making plans to renovate a stone bank barn on the 17-acre site.

Still, the Jericho bridge remains the main attraction, and that is as it should be, Scovill said.

"It is short-sighted not to honor our history," he said. "If we know where we come from, we will know where we are going."

A public meeting to answer questions and accept comments on the bridge project will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Baltimore County Office Building, 111 W. Chesapeake Ave., Room 215, in Towson.

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