Craig & Nathanael Wetzel

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Ohio’s First Covered Bridge

in Little Beaver Bridge/Local History by

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.

Bond coupon, Little Beaver Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Don Kelly/donckelly.com)
Bond coupon, Little Beaver Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Don Kelly/donckelly.com)
According to the 1809 Act authorizing the construction and maintenance of the bridge, Bever & Moore were required to erect “near the aforesaid bridge, a post or board, on which shall be written the rates of toll.” The rates pictured were in effect when the bridge opened. (Illustration by Craig Wetzel)
According to the 1809 Act authorizing the construction and maintenance of the bridge, Bever & Moore were required to erect “near the aforesaid bridge, a post or board, on which shall be written the rates of toll.” The rates pictured were in effect when the bridge opened. (Illustration by Craig Wetzel)

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)…”

map-WBWhile 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

The second covered bridge, circa 1880. This photo was taken from the west bank near the site of the first bridge, looking south towards the Ohio River. (Collection of Craig Wetzel)
The second covered bridge, circa 1880. This photo was taken from the west bank near the site of the first bridge, looking south towards the Ohio River. (Collection of Craig Wetzel)

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.

This bridge was erected on the abutments of the second covered bridge by the Wrought Iron Bridge Co. of Canton, Ohio in 1888. It was known as “Laughlin's Bridge” in honor of Matthew Laughlin, who had inherited the Bever & Moore grist mill. Laughlin married Thomas Moore's daughter, Maria, and was the father of Shakespeare and Homer Laughlin. Matthew, Maria, and Shakespeare Laughlin may be visited at Riverview Cemetery. (Collection of Craig Wetzel)
This bridge was erected on the abutments of the second covered bridge by the Wrought Iron Bridge Co. of Canton, Ohio in 1888. It was known as “Laughlin’s Bridge” in honor of Matthew Laughlin, who had inherited the Bever & Moore grist mill. Laughlin married Thomas Moore’s daughter, Maria, and was the father of Shakespeare and Homer Laughlin. Matthew, Maria, and Shakespeare Laughlin may be visited at Riverview Cemetery. (Collection of Craig Wetzel)

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

John Spear, Printer

in Cramer, Spear & Eichbaum/Franklin Paper Mill/Local History/Spear's Mill by
John Spear Grave, Long's Run Cemetery, Calcutta, Ohio
John Spear Grave, Long’s Run Cemetery, Calcutta, Ohio

In the shadow of Long’s Run Presbyterian Church, beneath an epitaph that the elements have rendered illegible, lies the body of printer John Spear. His life began on a cool August day in Philadelphia in the third year of the American Revolution. It ended, 64 years later and 350 miles away, in a forgotten settlement in the valley of Little Beaver Creek known as Spear’s Mills. This is his story.

Spring, 1841

In one of the finest 19th century narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, recent Irish immigrant Fortescue Cuming described the future city of East Liverpool: “...we passed Faucetstown [sic], a hamlet of five or six houses and a ferry, from whence is a road thirty miles to Warren in Ohio. Here I observed some seines for fishing, made by fastening bushes together with the tough and flexible stalks of the wild grape, with which this whole country abounds.”
In one of the finest 19th century narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, recent Irish immigrant Fortescue Cuming described the future city of East Liverpool: “…we passed Faucetstown [sic], a hamlet of five or six houses and a ferry, from whence is a road thirty miles to Warren in Ohio. Here I observed some seines for fishing, made by fastening bushes together with the tough and flexible stalks of the wild grape, with which this whole country abounds.”
John Spear sat at his desk, put on his gold-rimmed spectacles, and began writing his will. It was April and there was a fresh, earthy smell in the air. As he wrote instructions for the disposal of his property, Spear realized he would need only one sheet of paper, for his possessions were few. A well-worn silver watch kept time in his pocket. His furniture consisted of an old bureau, two armchairs, and a featherbed. Nearby were books by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. He did, however, own several hundred acres of land and a thriving gristmill under the management of R. C. Holmes, who lived with Spear. There was a well-stocked store adjacent to the mill, where the romantically minded pioneer couple could purchase a bearskin, liniment, and licorice balls. Nearby, one could experience the stench of a tan yard and the noise of a blacksmith shop and sawmill. Twenty houses, homes for the workers, were scattered throughout the settlement. It was a bustling place and only the Franklin Paper Mill, built in 1813, was silent. And yet, despite his considerable property, despite the industry, and despite the activity, John Spear’s estate was worth a mere $65,000 in today’s money.

When he had finished writing, Spear laid his pen on the desk and began to reminisce. He thought of his first sight of Pittsburgh at the turn of the century and his good fortune at finding employment as an apprentice printer under energetic Quaker Zadok Cramer, whose bookstore, printshop, and bindery at the “Sign of the Franklin Head” on Market Street was fast becoming a Pittsburgh institution. Spear remembered the pride he had felt in 1808 as he pulled a sheet from the press bed, the ink still wet, and first read the imprint, Cramer & Spear, his name beside that of his former master, now his partner.

It seemed so long ago. Cramer, who had written of the “uprightness and integrity” of Spear’s character, lay in an unmarked grave near Pensacola, Florida, a victim of the “white death” at age thirty-nine. Another partner, William Eichbaum, had left the firm in 1817. Cramer’s widow, Elizabeth, who became Spear’s partner after her husband’s death, had followed Zadok Cramer to the grave in 1818, the same year the Sign of the Franklin Head would move from Market to Wood Street. Spear remembered leaving the noise of the city and relocating to quiet Ohio, where he supervised the paper and grist mills while Susan, Cramer’s daughter, attended to the business in Pittsburgh. So many things had changed. Only Susan was left. She had been Spear’s last business partner. She would remain his dearest friend.

From 1800-1818 the “Sign of the Franklin Head” was located on the east side of Market Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets, Pittsburgh. In 1818, it moved to 54 Wood Street, where it would remain until the dissolution of the firm in 1832. [conjectural illustration by the author]
From 1800-1818 the “Sign of the Franklin Head” was located on the east side of Market Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets, Pittsburgh. In 1818, it moved to 54 Wood Street, where it would remain until the dissolution of the firm in 1832. [conjectural illustration by the author]
Spear’s thoughts turned to the many books the firm had printed, some of them still for sale in the store by the mill,their pages beginning to brown and fox. His life’s work had been to take paper, type, and ink and create the printed word, something of far greater worth than its constituent parts. Cramer’s Ohio and Mississippi Navigator, a guide to the western rivers that was as essential to the emigrant as the Bible, corn whiskey, and a sharp axe. Cramer’s Pittsburgh Almanac, the farmer’s guide that provided moon phases, weather predictions, and helpful hints to cure pests and diseases, all of it essential information for a primarily agrarian society. Brown’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible, the first illustrated book printed west of the Alleghenies. The first printed account of the Lewis & Clark expedition; ubiquitous school books such as the United States Speller and Murray’s English Reader; canonic titles such as Robinson Crusoe and the Vicar of Wakefield; biographies of Washington, Columbus, and Franklin; the Holy Bible; a book of hymns; other religious books; and even such esoteric titles as A Report of the Trial of the Journeyman Shoemakers, unfortunately now out of print. There were many more, now forgotten.

Spear felt sadness as he thought of the day in 1832 when the “Sign of the Franklin Head” was sold to M. P. O’Hern and the firm of Cramer & Spear had ceased to exist. Unable to sell the Ohio property, he had tried to rent the paper mill, without success. Several years later, Spear’s Mills was for sale again. Once more, he had failed to find a buyer. Spear had decided to stay, leaving everything to Susan, his “old and valued friend” George Cochran, and young Holmes, who would inherit the store and gristmill.

[1821 Cramer's Almanac] The first issue of Cramer's Almanac was printed for the year 1801. It would continue until the 1833 edition was printed in 1832. [author's collection]
The first issue of Cramer’s Almanac was printed for the year 1801. It would continue until the 1833 edition was printed in 1832. [author’s collection]
Spear arose from his desk to attend to the farm. Although he sensed that his time was short, he was satisfied, for he understood that he would outlive his own memory. Through his books he had helped to improve the lives of countless people. He had instructed them in their youth, he had taught them in their adolescence, he had strengthened their faith, and he had guided them on their way to a better life. For a man who would soon be forgotten, it was quite a bequest.

*************

That autumn, on October 12, John Spear died and was buried, according to his wishes, in the “nearest Presbyterian burial ground.” Seven years later, stonecutter John Jackson would erect a chest tomb over the grave and carve these words on the sandstone slab:

“In Memory of John Spear, Printer and Book Publisher…
Oh! Never did a purer spirit rise
More meekly firm, more innocently gay
More humbly good, or charitably wise.”

This article first appeared in the East Liverpool Review, Sunday, 1 November 2015. 

This map from the 1821 edition of Cramer's Navigator shows the Ohio River in the tri-state area. Both Little Beaver Creek, opposite Georgetown, and Yellow Creek, lower left, are unnamed. [author's collection]

This map from the 1821 edition of Cramer’s Navigator shows the Ohio River in the tri-state area. Both Little Beaver Creek, opposite Georgetown, and Yellow Creek, lower left, are unnamed. [author’s collection]

 

 

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