By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
he history of the area's remaining covered bridges is largely one of endurance.
These testaments to craftsmanship have withstood countless winters and floods. They have borne the incalculable weight of vehicles, animals and humans. They have escaped ruin by fire and time and in the name of progress.
The chances of these 19th-century survivors' lasting well into the 21st century are both fragile and promising.
Of the eight original bridges left in Columbiana, Trumbull, Lawrence and Mercer counties -- Mahoning County has none -- five are in reasonably good or excellent condition and two are slated for rehabilitation in the next year or two. Only one appears in imminent danger of being forgotten.
Who's in charge: Ensuring that the area's remaining covered bridges endure is a job that often falls to county officials.
Frank B. Taylor Engineering of New Castle oversees covered bridges for Lawrence County.
The firm guided the restoration of the county's two remaining covered bridges, the Banks Bridge in Wilmington Township and McConnell's Mill Bridge in Slippery Rock Township.
In 1999, Lawrence County completed a $430,000 rehabilitation of the Banks Bridge, all of it state-funded, said Taylor Engineering's Ross Taylor.
The state also paid for a $400,000 restoration of the McConnell's Mill Bridge, a job completed in 1998.
Overseeing the project gave Taylor an appreciation for the engineering and building skills of the old-time bridge makers.
"It's interesting when you think it was done over a hundred years ago," Taylor said of the timber joinery. "Everything fits like a glove."
"They don't build things like that nowadays," said Tom Walczak of New Castle, president of the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society, named after a bridge designer.
"It was all done by hand," Walczak added.
History: In Trumbull County, the engineer's office monitors the well-being of the Newton Falls Covered Bridge, an important part of history.
The county is applying for federal funding to help with the estimated $900,000 cost of rehabilitating the historical bridge, which still bears daily traffic.
"It has a lot of engineering history, and I'd like to preserve it," said John Picuri of the county engineer's office.
Work could be completed by July 2003.
Columbiana County's McClellan Covered Bridge sits just off Trinity Church Road and spans a stream that flows along a meadow.
Shaded by sycamores, the sagging but still charming span sorely needs repair and seems destined to be forgotten. But that may not be its fate.
"I don't think we'll ever let it get to that point," Columbiana County Engineer Bert Dawson said.
Noting that federal funding is now available for covered bridge restoration, Dawson said the county will likely address restoration of the McClellan Bridge eventually.
First, however, the county aims to complete restoration of another of its bridges, the Teegarden Centennial Covered Bridge.
Here's the problem: Despite the effort being put into saving bridges, there are those who would destroy them.
"You always have the problem of vandalism and fire," said Miriam Wood of Columbus, one of Ohio's foremost covered bridge experts.
Since 1988, three covered bridges in Columbiana County have been destroyed in deliberately set blazes.
Arson poses a serious threat to the spans, whose wooden construction and often-remote locations make them prey for criminals with a can of gasoline and a match.
Some officials have tried offering rewards to help catch bridge arsonists. But the strategy seldom works.
"One rat hardly ever tells on another," Wood said.
The rustic beauty of many of the bridges continually is marred by vandals armed with spray paint.
With graffiti, the problem isn't limited to its garish appearance. It also can encourage further vandalism, even arson, said Mary Smith of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.
"It's easy for someone to get the idea that no one's keeping an eye on things," Smith explained.
Changing attitude: Fortunately, many are watching over the structures. People seem to care more about covered bridges now than they ever have, bridge experts say.
"We are seeing quite an upswing in preservation efforts," Wood said.
Many are realizing the importance of the bridges as relics that are too easily lost.
"They're a segment of our history that's disappearing," said Walczak.
In Ohio, about 130 remain. That's down from 349 in 1954 and about 600 in 1937. In the 19th century, the state had nearly 2,000.
Pennsylvania now has about 213. It had 390 in 1954 and once boasted about 1,500.
Despite the labor and money needed to keep those numbers from ebbing further, many will tell you it's worth it.
The historical spans are "a product of a different time and a different period." They are "an artifact of wood craftsmanship," Smith said.
There's something picturesque and romantic about covered bridges, observed Jim Tillman, manager of Beaver Creek State Park in Columbiana County.
The park is the site of a pioneer village that includes a covered bridge that was moved there.
"We have a lot of requests from people who want to get married inside that bridge," Tillman said.
In examining a covered bridge, "you can see the marks of the hand tools. You see back to horses and buggies," said Denny Puko of the Shenango Conservancy.
The Mercer County-based group helped organize the restoration of Kidd's Mill Bridge, north of Hermitage, an $85,000 publicly and privately funded project completed in 1990.
Covered bridges were built as transportation devices, and they still perform that function.
Even if they have been moved away from streams and ravines and rest now in parks; even if all they bear are the footsteps of sightseers, they still transport us.
"They are a connection to who we once were," Puko said.