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Maryland's covered bridges recall a rustic time and peace

The immensely popular novel "The Bridges of Madison County" has captivated many as it continues to top best-seller lists. So it's not surprising that interest in our local covered bridges has also been aroused.

What better time to pay homage than now, with the backdrop of autumn's colors to set off the bridges? Stand on the banks by these structures, as others have done since the mid-1800s, and watch bronze and crimson leaves drift downward into the water. Take some back roads, where you will readily find other reminders of the way life used to be.

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Once home to more than 50 covered bridges, Maryland now has only eight. Most of the old wooden structures succumbed to the inevitable hazards of fires, floods or storms. Those that weathered the elements later fell victim to the modern onslaught of progress or careless upkeep.

A look at the surviving bridges shows their tenuous existence. One of the eight, Loy's Station Bridge in Frederick County, was destroyed by arson two years ago and is now dismantled. Reconstruction has just begun. The other two Frederick County covered bridges were seriously damaged by vehicular accidents, but have been repaired.

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Another survivor of sorts, Burdette's Bridge in Howard County, built around 1942, is now a plywood shell replacement over a tributary of the south branch of the Patapsco River. It bears scant resemblance to its predecessor, a cheery structure with red siding that sometimes sheltered cows.

What sets covered bridges apart from their modern-day cousins? Mostly, it's their construction.

They were traditionally built with wood, with a skeleton, or truss, made of large timbers joined so as to support each other, plus the load placed upon the whole span. The bridge-builder's craftsmanship has helped earn covered bridges a devoted following.

But for most people, who probably never ponder the difference between a kingpost or Burr-truss design, it is the simple fact that the bridges are covered that creates their appeal. To walk inside the darkened interior and study the massive timbers, or rumble over the wide planking in a car, is to briefly enter a time tunnel, transported back to a simpler, quieter time.

Colorful explanations have sprouted as to why bridges were covered. Some thought the roofing kept horses from being startled, or misled them into thinking they were entering a barn. Others figured the builders were thoughtful, providing a shelter in a storm for travelers. Not to mention the romantic possibilities, which earned these enclosures the nickname of "kissin' bridges."

The real reason, mundane but irrefutable, is that the covering protects the truss members from the elements that rot wood, that harmful combination of sun and rain.

Here's where you can find covered bridges in our area:

Catoctin Mountains

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Frederick County lays claim to the most covered bridges, three in all. Loy's Station Bridge in Thurmont, which was destroyed after an arson in 1991, is being reconstructed, thanks in part to the efforts of the Frederick County Covered Bridge Preservation Society, an active band of covered-bridge aficionados. The bridge should be open by next summer, with some of the original timbers reused.

The other two covered bridges in the Catoctin Mountains, Utica Mills and Roddy Road, are worth a trip. Utica Mills Bridge, on Utica Road about halfway between Frederick and Thurmont, was built in 1850.

It originally spanned the Monocacy River three miles east of its current location, but after a flood in 1889, the surviving half was moved downstream to the more modest Fishing Creek. Inside the 101-foot span, you can see timbers with what seem to be extra notches where the beams once interlocked, evidence that it was originally constructed at a different site.

Its design is called a Burr truss, named after Theodore Burr, a pioneer bridge builder from Connecticut who designed and built bridges up and down the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Patented at the turn of the 19th century, Burr's design consists of a great arch, in connection with kingpost trusses, which form the basic covered bridge framework of vertical and diagonal stress-bearing timbers. These massive arches were warped, not hewn, in a slow, deliberate process, with results that are still impressive today.

From Utica Mills, travel farther north, with a pause for some crisp local apples at one of the many roadside markets along Route 15. Also worth a detour is the Catoctin Furnace on Route 806, just south of Thurmont, which made iron for Revolutionary and Civil War arms.

Roddy Road Covered Bridge traverses Owens Creek, north of Thurmont off Route 15. This may be Maryland's most charming bridge, in a setting still rustic 100 years after it was built.

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Only 40 feet long, its truss is the most basic to covered bridges, the kingpost design. Stand at the center of the bridge's interior, and its simple geometry is plain. Two diagonal braces, in compression, form right triangles back to back, adjoined by a vertical center post, or "kingpost," which is in tension when a load is placed on the bridge. The main beams, stretching from end to end, form the "lower and upper chords," to which this truss work is attached to form a rigid framework.

Gunpowder Falls

Straddling the Baltimore-Harford County line on Jericho Road over the Little Gunpowder Falls, north of Kingsville, is the Jericho Covered Bridge, built in 1864.

Had it been built a year earlier, Harry Gilmor's Confederate troops would have used it when they traveled the same path during a raid on a nearby textile mill on their way to engage Union troops. It is an 88-foot single span Burr-truss design, extensively repaired 10 years ago, with steel beams added. A Gunpowder Falls State Park hiking trail runs along the river below.

Upper Chesapeake

Cecil County was once dotted with covered bridges, much like Frederick County. Now there are only two. One is very visible, next to a main highway, and the other is secreted away in a state environmental preserve.

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Gilpin's Falls, a nicely restored 1860 Burr-truss covered bridge, is situated over Northeast Creek near Bayview and is open to pedestrian traffic only. At 119 feet, it is the longest of the remaining Maryland bridges. When Route 272 was built in the 1930s, bypassing Gilpin's bridge, its days were numbered.

According to Richard Sanders Allen, author of "Covered Bridges of the Middle Atlantic States," there was a plan by Eastern Shore folks in 1936 to move the bridge to Salisbury. When locals heard of this, the value of Gilpin's Falls was rediscovered. Today, it sits serenely east of Route 272 in quiet contrast to the highway, marred only by generations of carved and sprayed graffiti on the inside beams.

A circa-1860 covered bridge in Fair Hill was once part of William du Pont's vast estate. The Maryland portion of the estate is now called the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, and is run by the state, with an equestrian center and environmental programs.

Foxcatcher Farms bridge (the name du Pont gave his estate) is a 75-foot multiple kingpost with a Burr-truss arch, near du Pont's old hunting lodge, deep within the preserve. Edward L. Walls, state manager for the Department of Natural Resources at Fair Hill, warns visitors to exercise caution within the grounds and to follow the 15 mph speed limit because of the horses and deer.

Indeed, seven deer looked skittishly at a car wending along the curving gravel road approaching the bridge. Visitors should park at the nature center because traffic is restricted on the other side of Big Elk Creek.

The bridge was rebuilt last year, with all but two of the original diagonal braces reused. The only disfigurement is a shabby old pump house rudely leaning against the eastern side, which had been used to pump water to reservoirs at du Pont's cattle barn.

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Montgomery County

A more recent bridge -- a mere 27 years old -- spans a pond on a private farm in Damascus. H. Deets Warfield built a cabin and pond in the woods of his farm, off Route 27, and was inspired by the covered bridge built by his brother-in-law, Hubert P. Burdette, in Howard County.

It departs from 19th-century tradition with steel supports and tidy glass windowpanes. According to Mr. Warfield's daughter, Joyce Rhodes, he added benches inside so his grandchildren could reach out the windows of the covered bridge to fish for bass and bluegill in the pond below.

Perhaps there are other private covered bridges like Mr. Warfield's, as yet undiscovered, a comforting thought for the rest of us.

IF YOU GO . . .

Frederick County: * Utica Mills: Utica Mills, south of Thurmont, Route 15 north to Old Frederick Road. Go 1.5 miles, then left on Utica Road.

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* Roddy Road: Thurmont area, Route 15 north, 1 mile north of Thurmont. Right on Roddy Road (opposite Bell Hill Farm Market and Orchard).

* Loy's Station (dismantled): Thurmont area, Route 15 north to Old Frederick Road. Bear right at sign for Loy's Station Park. 8.1 miles from Route 15, near Route 77.

Baltimore-Harford counties:

* Jericho: North of Kingsville. From Baltimore County: U.S. 1 to Kingsville. Right on Bradshaw Road, left on Franklinville Road and left again to Jericho Road.

From Harford County: Interstate 95 to Route 152 north toward Fallston. Left on Jerusalem Road and left on Jericho Road.

Cecil County:

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* Gilpin's Falls: East of Bayview. On Route 272, 1.4 miles north of Interstate 95 (Exit 100).

* Foxcatcher Farms: Fair Hill. I-95 to Route 272 north. 4.3 miles to Route 273. Turn right, east on Route 273. In 6.2 miles, left at Route 213. Right at Training Center Road. Follow road three miles to nature center.

Howard County:

* Burdette: (plywood shell): Woodbine, private road off Route 94.

Montgomery County:

* Warfield (not open to public): Damascus.


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