The Rise and Fall of Local Covered Bridges (1820-1939)

While bridge building was taking place across the Delaware River, Bucks County officials started the process of adding smaller covered bridges on arterial roads that connected towns, and a series of bridges linked to mills and canals.

The first local bridge building period was linked to Ithiel Town’s publication of his Lattice Truss patent in 1820. The Town Lattice design could be built by any competent carpenter, at various lengths, using readily available timber. Bucks County commissioned bridges in Chalfont, New Britain, Wrightstown, Newtown, Northampton, and Rockhill by the 1840s that used the new technology on roads that connected mills with communities. In the 1870s, the county added a second wave of covered bridges in mostly rural locations. In1919, Bucks County maintained at least 38 covered bridges.

This internal covered bridge network’s demise came between 1919 and 1940 as transportation needs changed drastically. Before World War, I, the Sproul Road Act of 1911 led to the creation of a state highway system in Pennsylvania, with the Department of Highways coordinating that effort. A federal road and bridge funding act pumped more money into Pennsylvania in 1921, and the state provided matching funds.

Bucks County had prepared for the state takeover of some roads and bridges in 1919, when county engineer Adam Oscar Martin surveyed and photographed more than 300 bridges, including the covered bridges built and owned by the county since 1820. The state demolished covered bridges in Holland, Kintnersville, New Britain, and Lower Southampton starting in 1921 as part of road-improvement efforts, replacing them with cement or steel structures. Then 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.

However, during this period, the first protests about the covered bridge demolition policies started in Bucks County. In 1935, the Delaware Valley Protective Association, a group formed to preserve the Delaware River Division Canal, protested the state’s planned demolition of the Neely’s Mill Covered Bridge at Bowman’s Hill. State officials reached an agreement with the group to move the bridge to a nearby park, but the state halted the move after the bridge had been slid 1,000 feet to an on-ground location. By 1939, the Neely’s Mill Bridge was a “skeleton” of itself as it remained.

By 1939, residents in Perkasie were complaining about the condition of their covered bridges and battling with county officials over the potential removal of the South Perkasie covered bridge, which had been in road service since 1832.

The Perkasie Central News said on October 13, 1939, that the county decided to repair the South Perkasie Covered Bridge after it demolished Steeley’s Covered Bridge, which sat two miles northeast of the South Perkasie span on Branch Road. The Central News noted the South Perkasie bridge “will likely remain for another generation at least” in service. That prediction came true when in 1957, the county announced plans to replace the South Perkasie Covered Bridge - a decision that had significant implications for local covered bridge preservation.