The Medora Covered Bridge

 

From 1926 to 1950, Route 50 crossed a covered bridge near Medora, Indiana. Though 50 has been re-routed, the bridge still stands. To see it, turn south on Indiana 235, which is six miles west of Brownstown. In three miles you’ll reach Medora, a town of around 800 people.


From Medora, follow 235 east for one mile to the East Fork of the White River and the Medora covered bridge.


Covered bridges were first built in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Regarded as engineering marvels, they attracted the attention of travelers from Europe, including Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote about one in 1842 in his American Notes, “We crossed the river by a wooden bridge, roofed and covered on all sides, and nearly a mile in length. It was profoundly dark, perplexed with great beams crossing and recrossing it at every possible angle . . . and I held my head down to save my head from the rafters above . . . and said to myself this cannot be reality.”


Construction of early covered bridges was driven by economic growth. They eliminated the need to ford rivers, making it easier for farmers to get grain and cattle to market and improving travel by foot or horse and buggy.


Local builders with experience building ships and barns constructed the bridges using timber abundant in eastern North America. They covered the bridges to protect them from weather damage, because it was easier to replace degraded roofs and walls than to rebuild damaged structural elements. Windows added complexity to construction and were regarded as extras. The Medora bridge was once called “the dark bridge,” because it had no windows and its length made it particularly dark in the middle.


The walls of a covered bridge conceal how it’s built, but the photos on this page, taken in 2010 during renovation, show the Medora bridge’s structure. The triangles in the sides of the bridge are trusses, a simple, economical but strong form. The curved wooden arches are called Burr arches, first used in 1804 by Theodore Burr, an inventor from Connecticut. They were an important improvement in bridge technology, because they increased strength while keeping the bridge deck level.


Burr arches allow longer bridge spans, making it possible to cross wider gaps. The Medora bridge is 460 feet long, the longest covered bridge in Indiana. Supporters claim it’s the longest covered bridge in the United States. In the bridge’s application for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, run by the National Park Service, it was called “the longest surviving historic covered bridge in the United States,” while the American Society of Civil Engineers recognizes it as the “longest remaining nineteenth century covered bridge structure in the United States.” It should be said, however, that an Internet search for “longest covered bridge” reveals a number of claimants for this honor.


The first covered bridge in the United States was built over the Schuykill River near Philadelphia in 1805, and the first Indiana bridge was built near Indianapolis in 1835. Joseph J. Daniels built the Medora bridge in 1875. It took nine months, cost $18,142, and opened on July 15. Information such as this is tracked by the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, which assigns an identifying number to each bridge in its World Guide to Covered Bridges. The Medora bridge is number 14-36-04.


The exact number of covered bridges built in the U.S. is not known, but there may have been as many as 10,000, including 400 to 500 in Indiana. Today, there are around 800 U.S. covered bridges remaining, and fewer than 100 in Indiana. According to the Smithsonian Institution, an average of five covered bridges are damaged or destroyed each year, and according to the Indiana Historical Bureau, a key factor is “careless driving.”


The Medora bridge carried automobile traffic until 1970. In June 2011, a rehab of the bridge was completed, and it is now open for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.


For many small communities, covered bridges provided the largest near-by covered space, and they were used for revival meetings, weddings, and political rallies. The town of Medora continued this practice when, on August 3, 2013, at 6:30 PM, it held a dinner party on its renewed bridge. More than one hundred fifty guests dined on fried chicken, ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans, grape salad, hot rolls, home-made pie, iced tea, and lemonade.


The Medora bridge has a website, www.medoracoveredbridge.com. Go there to learn more, see photos of the renovated bridge, and perhaps make reservations for a future dinner.

















The Medora covered bridge spans the east fork of the White River

[The pillars in the background support a modern railroad bridge]



Route 50 in Indiana


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