COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

New England’s bridges and backcountry

Why are the covered bridges of New England often painted red? Did the farmers use the leftover red paint from their barns?

That was a big curiosity as I motored around Vermont and New Hampshire finding bridges of a bygone era.

Armed with a covered-bridge guidebook, I found most of the relics are on deserted back roads, often without directional signs. That’s because the covered bridges that were on main highways were removed to accommodate the increased traffic in the early 20th century.

Yes, there are some old monumental covered bridges on major roads, but they have been modified to take heavy traffic and lack the picturesque charm of the rickety old wooden relics near remote villages.

The search takes you to interesting places that you would never see along the well-traveled routes.

Since touring in Vermont and New Hampshire is about farms, barns and picturesque villages, some of these back roads are discoveries, especially during the colorful fall season.

If you pay attention to the guidebook for covered bridges, you begin to realize there are different forms of construction that in some cases were patented.

I learned there were specific design styles by different manufacturers. The most common are the patented designs by Peter Paddleford, Milton Graton, Col. Stephen Long and Theodore Burr.

The most common form of structure was a Paddleford crisscross truss, often supplemented with a Burr-designed arch. There were many others who designed covered bridges found in most of the Eastern states.

The preservation of historical covered bridges is supported by several societies and state governments, mostly in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Trying to find some backcountry roads, even with maps and advice from locals, became a daily adventure. Sometimes we would stop a farmer on his tractor to ask directions.

“Go to the end of the tahr,” one replied.

We didn’t understand, until we found when the paved road ended — at the end of the “tar” — it became a gravel road, eventually crossing a covered bridge. This was a real discovery and not obvious on the map.

The ideal time to tour New England is in the early fall as the autumn color begins and the days are generally warm. The town of Lincoln, N.H., offers a variety of accommodations, as it is also a popular ski resort, and a good spot for your headquarters to explore for covered bridges.

Other highlights are the Franconia Notch State Park near Lincoln, the Weeks State Park in Lancaster and the Mount Washington Cog Railway, for a superb view of the White Mountains.

These are easy day trips from a base in Lincoln or a country inn at nearby Franconia.

Franconia Notch State Park is in the heart of the popular White Mountain National Forest. It’s a scenic pass connecting Lincoln to the northern section of New Hampshire and Mount Washington and access to the Appalachian Trail.

A charming New England country inn at the town of Franconia provides comfortable accommodations and excellent food. It is also very popular for snowshoeing ventures in the winter.

On up the road to Mount Washington, a stop at the monumental, historic Hotel Washington at the base of the mountain is impressive. Nearby is the cog railway with the original “Little Engine That Could” to the top of Mount Washington, the windiest place in North America.

If you are lucky to have a clear day, it is spectacular.

Records show there are still 54 wooden covered bridges in New Hampshire and 106 in Vermont, the most per square mile of any state. Here are some of the most picturesque that I found along the routes through both states.

In Vermont: Silk Road Bridge at Bennington; Windsor-Cornish Bridge over the Connecticut River (1866, 468 feet long).

In New Hampshire: Haverhill-Bath Bridge at Woodville (1827, 257 feet long); Swiftwater-Bath Bridge (1849, 158 feet long); Bath Bridge (1833, 379 feet long).

Now to get back to why covered bridges are painted red. The most common explanation is the combination of dirt and rust mixed with a paint base that provides a good covering of the wood as well as the red color.

Often, only the ends of the bridges were painted red.

According to legend, horses were more likely to enter the bridge because it looked like their home-based barn and would not be frightened by the sound of hooves on the floor boards and the rushing river they were crossing.

I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any I found in my research.



Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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