Despite the common vision of Ichabod Crane rushing across a covered bridge just before being beaned by a pumpkin, the first covered bridge in the United States was not erected until 1805, when Ichabod was already mouldering in his fictional grave. Covering a wooden bridge offered several benefits, most importantly in extending the life of the structure by protecting its timbers, and soon people in the east were running up and down stream banks saying, “I want a roof on my bridge.” In the west, however, there were few bridges to cover and few options for crossing any stream. You could fly, which would have required a 100-year wait; you could take a boat if one was available; you could cross at a ford, which was wet; or you could swim, which was wetter. If the stream was too high, as was often the case in the spring and after a heavy rain, you waited, drank corn whiskey, killed fleas and discussed the Jefferson administration until the water subsided.
In 1808, Georgetown, Pennsylvania resident John Bever and his friend, Thomas Moore, owned a large grist mill on the western bank of Little Beaver Creek, a mile north of the mouth. At that time, the Georgetown-New Lisbon Road, as it was locally known, ran through Georgetown, crossed the Ohio River on a ferry, and continued into the interior of the new state of Ohio, crossing the Little Beaver near Bever and Moore’s gristmill. That the road crossed the Little Beaver was more theory than fact; it may have been while Bever and Moore stood on the east bank and looked at their mill on the west bank that they decided to build a bridge. In addition to allowing Bever and his friend to remain dry, a bridge crossing the stream would be a “great facility for emigrants and travellers [sic] passing into the state of Ohio…,” all of whom would, hopefully, have to pay a fee.1 And so it was that in February 1809, Bever and Moore received permission from the state of Ohio to erect a toll bridge over Little Beaver Creek at their own expense. Later that year Irishman Fortesque Cuming had this to say: “Over this creek [Little Beaver] about a mile from its mouth, a new toll bridge was erected in the summer and fall of 1809, on the road leading from Washington county [PA] to New Lisbon…”2 Less than five years after the first covered bridge in the United States, Bever and Moore had built the first one in Ohio.
Contemporary descriptions of the structure are few. Cramer’s Navigator describes it as a “handsome arched bridge, substantially made and well covered in.” Since the span was over 120 feet, it is likely the bridge was built using the Burr Truss, patented in 1806 by Theodore Burr.3 This new design made spans of over a hundred feet attainable by the use of a large arch on each side of the structure and may also be the source of the term “arched bridge” used by Cramer, as the arch would have been readily visible from inside the bridge.
The best description of the bridge comes from a Columbiana County Common Pleas Court case filed in 1811, Crawford, Knight, Thomas, and Konkle vs. the Little Beaver Bridge Company, in which the following description of the proposed completion of the bridge is given:
“…studding on each side of the bridge, to be two and one-half feet from center to center of each stud, and furnish all-weather boarding to be eight inches wide, face six inches to the weather and lap two inches, and all other boards that may be necessary to weatherboard said bridge (at Little Beaver mills) in the following manner: white pine boards of three-fourths of an inch thick, to be seasoned or nearly so, to be planed on one side, jointed and beaded, and put on the sides of said bridge lengthwise and to have the same course as the bearing beams and plates, the bearing beams and arch beams to be boarded with inch boards of the width of the same with a moulding above and over each to turn the rain or water off the ends of all the bearing joist beams to be boxed on three sides in such a way that the upper side shall elevate from the end to the weatherboarding at least four inches and the sides made close and tight, the ends of the posts below the arch beams and posts at each end of the bridge to be boxed on three sides with inch boards, well seasoned and planed, the eaves to be boxed with inch boards also seasoned and planed , the whole of the boards to be clear of sap, wind shakes, and splits; also to put four venetian blinds of the size of a fifteen-light window (of 8 by ten inches glass) two on each side of the bridge when wanted, to be well cased and faced, with the blinds let into the easing, the whole to be done in a complete and workmanlike manner by the said defendants and the said Williams at their own proper expense and risk, also to paint the sides of the said bridge, roof, and gable ends with two coats of Spanish brown paint, except the bearing beams, arch beams, eaves and the facing of the blinds which are to be painted white (also with two coats)…”
While the court case concerned work that had not been completed by the contractor, it may be assumed that the bridge as eventually completed, hopefully by someone more reliable than the defendants, would have been finished in the same manner as specified. After 1811, references to the structure itself are infrequent. In 1832 John Bever wrote his will, giving his interest in the bridge and the land on which it stood to Shakespeare Moore, son of partner Thomas Moore. If the young Shakespeare Moore entertained dreams of owning a bridge, he was to be disappointed. In 1834 Bever changed his mind, and in a codicil to his will, gave the bridge to the county. Nearly 200 years later, we can still imagine young Moore’s disappointment. Then, as now, people were seldom given bridges.
It is unclear how long Ohio’s first covered bridge remained standing. According to Thomas J. Malone, “the skeleton of the wooden bridge spanned the creek for some years after the iron bridge (see below) was open to traffic [in 1888].”4 This mention by Malone, who evidently pulled facts from a hat and avoided footnotes and references whenever possible, is the only indication that the bridge still survived at that late date. Several maps give tantalizing clues. While the bridge was clearly shown on several early maps—a map published in 1846 is the latest that shows the road crossing the creek at the site of the bridge—an 1860 Columbiana County map indicates that the bridge was unused by that date. On a survey map dated 1861, the bridge is shown and labeled “old bridge.” The following notice from November 28 of the same year appeared in the Buckeye State, New Lisbon, Ohio:
“We had occasion, on Friday last, to go to Smith’s Ferry, and one or two other localities in that direction, but the bridge, at the Little Beaver crossing, near Laughlin’s store, swept away by the August freshet, not yet being rebuilt, and finding it impossible to get across the creek with a horse, we were consequently obliged to foot it some eight or ten miles over the stoniest, hilliest, muddiest, and dreariest portion of the earth that could possibly be imagined. We were informed that the stone work of the bridge had been finished for some two weeks, and that the timber was prepared, ready for the speedy completion of the job, but the contractors were somewhere else at work, putting up a railroad bridge…”5
Another survey map indicates that a new covered bridge was erected over the stream around the year 1870, though it is possible that the November 28 newspaper notice given above referred to the second bridge. Three hundred yards downstream from the original bridge, this bridge with a span of 128 feet would stand for nearly two decades before being replaced by an iron bridge in 1888.
Additional views of the 1888 iron bridge can be seen on the East Liverpool Historical Society website by clicking here: [magic lantern slide no. 4], and here: [magic lantern slide no. 142]. For information on the town that formed around the bridge, known as Little Beaver Bridge, click here.
This article, in a modified form, first appeared in the East Liverpool Review, Sunday, December 13, 2015
1Cramer, Zadok. The Ohio and Mississippi Navigator, Pittsburgh, 1821 Cramer & Spear.
2Cuming, Fortescue. Sketches of a Tour through the Western Country…, Pittsburgh 1810, Cramer, Spear & Eichbaum.
3Burr was a cousin of Vice-President Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against him.
4Malone, Thomas J. John Bever, Pioneer Surveyor…, 1975 E. Liverpool Historical Society.
5Courtesy of Tim Brookes