By Rebecca Sloan

Covered Bridge Festival Saturday, next Sunday

The Smolen-Gulf Bridge is the longest covered bridge in America.

The longest covered bridge in America will be the star attraction at this year’s Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival Saturday and next Sunday.

The bridge – called the Smolen-Gulf Bridge – is located in Plymouth township on Highway 25 and was completed in August after two years of construction.

Betty Morrison, the festival’s executive director, said the bridge’s completion has been eagerly anticipated.

“People are coming from all over to see this bridge – New York, Indiana, New Hampshire. It’s really bringing people to Ashtabula County, and we are thrilled,” she said.

With a gleaming galvanized aluminum roof and a framework of strong wooden trusses so new they still smell like fresh sawdust, the Smolen-Gulf Bridge makes quite a statement.

It stretches 613 feet across the Ashtabula River and rises a staggering 93 feet from a deep gorge local folks refer to as “the gulf.”

Two pedestrian walkways along the outside of the bridge allow for breathtaking views of this plunging wooded gorge.

“The numbers associated with this bridge are really impressive,” Morrison said. “About 51,000 cubic feet of lumber was used to build this bridge. That’s enough lumber to cover an entire football field at 13 inches thick.”

The bridge is also wide enough to accommodate two-lanes of traffic and strong enough to hold 80,000 pounds of tractor trailer traffic.

Morrison said John Smolen, a former Ashtabula County engineer and covered bridge enthusiast, first proposed the bridge back in 1995.

“There was a previous bridge across ‘the gulf’ at a lower location, but it was declared unsafe,” Morrison explained. “When a new bridge was proposed, [county officials] decided to re-align the road and build the new bridge at a higher location.”

The bridge, which was named in honor of John Smolen, cost $8 million and was paid for by state, local and federal funds.

“It was designed to look like an old-fashioned covered bridge, but it has the strength and durability of a modern bridge,” Morrison said. “It has a life expectancy of 100 years.”

The Smolen-Gulf Bridge has beat out New England’s Cornish-Windsor Bridge as the longest in the United States.

The Cornish-Windsor Bridge measures about 449 feet long and connects New Hampshire to Vermont.

The longest covered bridge in the world is located in New Brunswick, Canada. It spans the St. John River and measures 1,282 feet.

“I never thought we’d have the longest covered bridge in America right here in Ashtabula County,” Morrison marveled. “When John Smolen first started talking about it, I thought he was just dreaming, but then in 1999 when we got the funding it started to become more of a reality.”

The Smolen-Gulf Bridge was officially named and dedicated Aug. 26 before a crowd of 1,500 people.

It is Ashtabula County’s 17th covered bridge.

The County has more covered bridges than any other place in Ohio, and its covered bridge festival takes place every year during the second weekend of October.

“The leaves are usually at their peak then,” Morrison explained.

The festival features two self-guided driving tours that are each about 65 miles long.

“You can do both tours in one day if you start early,” Morrison said, “but sometimes it’s better to do Tour A on Saturday, and Tour B on Sunday so you don’t have to rush.”

You can obtain a map of the county’s covered bridges and navigate the tours yourself at no cost, or you can go to the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds at 127 N. Elm St. in Jefferson and catch a van that will take you to four of the 17 bridges.

The van tours cost $10 per person.

A shuttle service from the fairgrounds to the Smolen-Gulf Bridge will also be available during the festival for $3 per person.

“Shuttles will be going back and forth between the fairgrounds and the bridge all day long during the festival,” Morrison said.

At the fairgrounds in Jefferson, visitors will find food, crafts and entertainment in honor of the festival.

Festival hours are 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday.

XFor more information about the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival call (440) 576-3769 or visit www.ashtabulacoveredbridgefestival.

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