Portals to the Past
Van Sandt Covered Bridge
Now’s the Perfect Time to Tour the Covered Bridges of Bucks County
By Ilene Dube | Photography by Josh Friedman
One of my favorite places for bicycling is on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, along the towpath from Uhlerstown to Lumberville. We usually park at Bull’s Island, cycle up to Frenchtown, then cross the river, pass the iris fields, and reach the Uhlerstown Covered Bridge. This magnificent barn-red wooden structure with windows, about 100 feet long and a century and a half old, spans the canal – in fact it’s the only covered bridge that crosses the Delaware & Raritan Canal. Every time I approach, I feel as if I’ve taken a step back in time, to some idyllic era. My very own Brigadoon.
The Uhlerstown Covered Bridge received a recent facelift, thanks to a $2.5 million Bucks County expenditure to repair seven of its bridges. The bridge has been a subject for many an artist and photographer, including Josh Friedman of Yardley, Pennsylvania, whose photographs you see on these pages and are available as prints from his Etsy site. Friedman, who is also a psychotherapist, points his lens at bridges of all types, among other picturesque subjects.
Uhlerstown Covered Bridge
Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has 12 covered bridges, compared to two in all of New Jersey, only one of which is historic. (Green Sergeant’s Covered Bridge over the Wickecheoke Creek in Delaware Township, built in 1872, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)
In fact, Pennsylvania has more covered bridges than any other state. Pennsylvania once boasted 1,500 covered bridges, historically known as “kissing” or “wishing” bridges because the shaded passages were ideally suited for such activities.
With family visiting for the holidays, there couldn’t be a better time to tour these nearby tunnels to the past.
Knecht’s Covered Bridge
The Bucks County Covered Bridge Society website is a good place to start. The organization exists to preserve, protect, and promote the care of Bucks County’s historic covered bridges. At one time there were 50 bridges in the county, but many were lost due to flooding, neglect, development, and arson. The site offers a full description, history, and directions to all 12 bridges.
The first known covered bridge in the U.S. was built in 1800 over the Schuylkill River at 30th Street in Philadelphia. The second known covered bridge in the nation was the Lower Trenton, or Decatur Street, Covered Bridge built in 1806 and connecting Trenton to Morrisville, Pennsylvania. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette took part in a parade on the bridge in his honor.
Covered bridges represent a transition from stone to cast-iron bridges, and were developed as a way to extend the life of the bridge by protecting the side supporting timbers from exposure to the weather, lowering maintenance costs. They became popular in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s as a way to drive livestock safely across small bodies of water, and were made to look like barns, according to legend, so that the animals would feel at home.
Van Sandt Covered Bridge
What sets the 12 Bucks County covered bridges apart is that they were built using Town’s Lattice Truss, named for Connecticut architect Ithiel Town. He patented the design in 1820, in which lattice-type beams were built in crosses of overlapping triangles.
In the 1870s, Bucks County added a second wave of covered bridges in mostly rural locations. By 1919, the county maintained at least 38 covered bridges.
During their existence, the long wooden bridges over the Delaware River faced threats from historic floods in 1842 and 1862. Starting in 1921, the state demolished covered bridges in Holland, Kintnersville, New Britain, and Lower Southampton as part of road-improvement efforts, replacing them with cement or steel structures. In 1929, state lawmakers granted control of all bridges on county roads to the state Department of Highways. Road crews demolished another 16 covered bridges during the following decade.
The Lower Trenton Covered Bridge was the first to be replaced with a metal structure. By 1945, the Lumberville covered bridge was declared unsafe and closed, ending the Delaware River covered bridge era in Bucks County.
Moving the South Perkasie Covered Bridge in 1958. (savethebridge.com)
The Mercer Museum at Fonthill Castle offers even more information on the history of the bridges, including those lost to time. It is there one can learn that the South Perkasie Covered Bridge is the oldest covered bridge in Bucks County, and it is the third-oldest Town lattice bridge in the U.S. It was nearly demolished 1958.
Spanning the Pleasant Spring Creek that connected a mill with nearby villages, the South Perkasie Covered Bridge was at one time the focal point of a village called Bridgetown (Perkasie Borough annexed the village in 1898). But by 1939, Perkasie residents were complaining about the condition of three state- and county-owned covered bridges in their area and questioning county officials over the potential removal of the South Perkasie Covered Bridge.
Frankenfield Covered Bridge
In 1956, Perkasie Borough asked the Bucks County commissioners to remove the South Perkasie Covered Bridge as a traffic hazard, and in 1957 the commissioners condemned the bridge. Soon after the announcement, the Perkasie Historical Society lead an effort to move the covered bridge to nearby Lenape Park, where it remains as a living museum. The move generated significant publicity about covered bridge preservation.
Frankenfield Covered Bridge in Tinicum Township is one of the most remote Bucks County covered bridges. During the 1970s, county and local officials debated the best course of action for the bridge, which was noticeably leaning. While there was some discussion of closing the bridge to traffic and keeping it as a walking bridge, the county was able to fund a $170,000 renovation project in 1977 that added steel beams under the bridge’s floor.
At least two of the covered bridges are pedestrian only: the South Perkasie Covered Bridge in Lenape Park, Perkasie, and Schofield Ford Covered Bridge which sits in Tyler State Park in Newtown.
One can imagine a future of covered bridges adaptively reused as art galleries, restaurants, even shelters.
Schofield Ford Covered Bridge
Author and historian Scott Bomboy and the Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, have produced the first complete digital history of Bucks County’s covered bridges with more than 100 historical images related to the lost bridges at bucksbridges.com.