Back in the 1980s I worked for a guy at Nissan who was nuts about covered bridges. He even produced a coffee table book about them; it mostly sold in Japan, for some reason. I spent an interesting weekend with him visiting the covered bridges of Georgia and Alabama and have enjoyed them ever since.
Covered bridges are interesting. No two are alike. They’re colorful anachronisms, although many are still in use by vehicular traffic. Enough people are hooked on them like my ex-boss that there are various preservation groups working to maintain them in parks or historic sites.
You’ll find them in states with plenty of streams that need to be crossed and plenty of timber for building. California has 11, all of them in the northern half of the state. You won’t find them in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico or Texas. Too dry. The greatest number are in states like Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. The best-known bridge is in Iowa, scene of the romantic movie Bridges of Madison County, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
But the greatest concentration of covered bridges is in a small rural county in western Indiana. Parke County has 31 covered bridges, most in very good condition and some still in daily use. They’re easy to visit, thanks to a terrific web site produced and maintained by the county. It has a photo of each bridge, its specifications, and a map showing how to get there. If you have questions, use the e-mail function on the web site. I did and got a prompt reply.
The URL is www.coveredbridges.com. If you don’t make a note and six months from now decide to visit those covered bridges you read about in Road Trips with Tom, just Google “Parke County, Indiana” and this site will pop up first.
My question was “Why so many covered bridges in Parke County?” The answer (and I’m paraphrasing here) is that the area has the three necessary ingredients – water, wood and skill. Indiana has hundreds of creeks, streams and rivers. It also had an ample supply of timber. And finally, it had skilled builders with covered bridge experience.
But why build a covered bridge? An uncovered timber plank bridge will last 10 to 15 years of exposure to the elements. Many of the covered bridges around today were built 150 years ago and are still standing, although some maintenance was no doubt needed. Another reason for covering the bridge is that horses often shied away when near rushing water. The covered bridge kept them from being distracted; besides, the bridge looked like a barn.
Parke County is easy to visit if you’re road-tripping down Interstate 70 west of Indianapolis. Take Exit 7 in Terre Haute onto US 41 and drive north about 25 miles to Rockville, Parke County seat. You’ll find an Econo Lodge in Rockville, but most people will prefer the wide variety of accommodations and services in Terre Haute.
Camping? You’ll find a nice campground in Turkey Run State Park, just down the road from two covered bridges.