Ball State University's Center for Historic Preservation, in cooperation with Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, is producing the Parke County Historic Sites and Structures Inventory Interim Report. The interim report is the result of the 2008 survey of Parke County's historic resources and the project has been funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior-National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the Indiana DNR’s Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. Prominently featured in the Report are the Parke County covered bridges for which the area is largely known. The Ball State Drawings and Documents Archive maintains a collection of drawings, photographs, and Historic Architecture Buildings Survey (HABS) documents of Parke County covered bridges as well as covered bridges throughout Indiana.
Today, covered bridges are considered historical landmarks and nostalgic reminders of a bygone era. There are many speculations about why the bridges were covered. Romantics call them “kissing bridges,” as young couples could steal away in their horse-and-buggies and sneak kisses under the cover of a bridge’s roof without fear of detection. Others suggest the bridges were built to resemble barns so farm animals would not stampede while being driven across rushing waters. Still others claim the bridges were covered to deflect snow and rain and provide shelters to travelers caught in a storm. Regardless of which explanation you prefer, covering bridges protected the trusses from deterioration caused by weather. Bridge engineers argue that covered bridges could be expected to last three times longer than non-covered bridges.
Unlike most modern bridges, which take the numbers of highways that cross them, covered bridges generally were given names that revealed something special about them. Some bridges were named for farm families that owned the land on which they rested. A number were given names of nearby towns or businesses, such as the 1856 Portland Mills Covered Bridge, which is the oldest bridge in the county. Other bridges, such as the Narrows Bridge, were named for unique characteristics associated with their appearance or history. The Narrows Bridge, built by Joseph Albert Britton, picturesquely spans Sugar Creek at Turkey Run State Park and is the most photographed bridge in Parke County.
Covered bridges have also long been the source of local folklore and ghost stories. At the Sim Smith Bridge, ghostly sounds of a horse-and-buggy can reputedly be heard rattling the wooden supports of the bridge late at night. Similarly, a ghost of a young woman who was killed in a buggy accident in the early 1900s is said to haunt Bridgeton Bridge, which was built by the eminent bridge builder J.J. Daniels in 1868. Sadly, this 245-foot double-spanned scarlet bridge was lost to arson in 2005, but rebuilt in 2006.
The covered bridges of Parke County have become a growing point of national interest since the county’s first Covered Bridge Festival in 1957. The festival continues every October, when more than two million covered bridge enthusiasts can explore the rural countryside. Parke County, which boasts itself as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World,” has more covered bridges than any other county in the country. In December of 1978, its 31 covered bridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Written by Trinity Hart Vavra, Graduate Assistant at the Center for Historic Preservation
Images: Alvin W. Holmes, Bridgeton Bridge, 1946, Alvin W. Holmes Collection
Narrows Bridge, ca. 1972, HD 72.010
For more images of Parke County covered bridges, visit http://www.bsu.edu/libraries/archives/drawings/Collections/practitionercollections/holmesdigital/index.htm