Covered treasures Columbia County, Pa.'s nearly two dozen covered bridges aren't simply charming links to the past - they're offbeat picnic spots or places to cast a trout fly.

Posted: November 24, 2002

BENTON, Pa. — I never knew you could fall in love with a bridge - until I came to Columbia County.

Up here in east-central Pennsylvania, they have real covered bridges, ones I can drive on, walk across, and enjoy picnics on. I can touch their history in the nooks and crannies of their huge timbers.

With 20 of these old bridges scattered over 486 square miles, Columbia has the state's third-largest concentration of these treasured legacies from 19th-century architects and carpenters who wisely put lids on their spans to protect them from exposure to rain, sleet and snow. (In the tally of existing Pennsylvania covered bridges, Lancaster and Washington Counties are first and second, with 32 and 25, respectively.)

There is a story circulating in these parts about a speaker at a recent covered-bridge event. In his remarks, this gentleman apparently spoke a trifle too condescendingly about the county's early bridge builders. Finally, a man in the audience stood up and bluntly asked the speaker, "What are you building today that will be here 200 years from now?"

Folks in Columbia County are serious about their past and about preserving what remains of it for future generations.

Among the passionate preservationists is County Commissioner Chris Young, who grew up near a covered bridge built in 1847 in the village of Rupert, south of Bloomsburg, the county seat here.

"When you stand on a covered bridge, you're actually going back in time," Young explained to me one morning, between bites of his scrapple-and-cheese sandwich at the Old Filling Station restaurant on Benton's Main Street. "All of them are unique, and all have their own fascinating stories to tell you. You can walk across a covered bridge and feel what someone felt when they walked across it 150 or 200 years ago."

Young is a professional trapper, a 40-year-old part-time Bloomsburg University student, and president of the nonprofit Columbia County Covered Bridges Association. It's an organization founded in 1991 to help ensure that our grandchildren will be able to experience time-machine strolls into the past.

County officials maintain the 18 covered bridges that still carry vehicular traffic. Bridges that fall into disrepair and are closed to vehicles, however, no longer receive funds from the state's liquid-fuel tax. That's why the Columbia County Covered Bridge Association was formed.

Let me take you on a tour of just a few of the county's spans. We'll start outside Bloomsburg, at the intersection of I-80 and Route 487.

The Twin Bridges

Take Route 487 north for 8.6 miles to Winding Road in Forks. You'll see two signs, one advertising Hickory Joe's, a long-defunct restaurant, and a weather-beaten one for Twin Bridges Park. Turn right and go 0.2 of a mile to the twin bridges over Huntington Creek.

The guidebooks say these are the only twin covered bridges in the United States, but also point out that they're really not twin spans. One of them, the 72-foot-long East Paden, was built in the style known as the Queenpost Truss, while the West Paden, at 121 feet in length, is an example of the classic Burr arch, named for Theodore Burr. He was a famous 19th-century bridge builder from Connecticut who once built a covered bridge between Trenton and Morrisville, Pa.

The twins were built in 1884 for $720, and named for the owner of a local sawmill, John Paden. There are picnic tables inside the bridges, and outside is a pleasant park with slides and other attractions for youngsters.

During a recent visit, I saw an example of what Chris Young calls the "quiet tourism" generated by covered bridges. A car with New York plates pulled up, and Tim and Heidi Mader of Binghamton and their two children got out. Hearing about the Twin Bridges' unique construction while staying at a Bloomsburg inn, they made a detour just to see them.

"You don't know these tourists are here," Young explained. "They stay at motels, eat in restaurants, visit the bridges, take photos, and leave. But they're vital to the economy."

Josiah Hess Bridge

From the Twin Bridges parking area, make a right on Winding Road and drive 1.1 miles to Covered Bridge Road. Turn left into a dirt driveway and discover one of the jewels in the crown of Columbia County spans. I pulled up to Josiah Hess late one morning as the sun suddenly burst from behind the clouds, lighting up trees on a hillside behind the bridge. That was the moment I discovered that a bridge could steal your heart faster than a schoolyard crush.

On the other side of this 110-foot span over Huntington Creek is John Hopkins' Forks Farm, which specializes in raising grass-fed cattle, pork, and poultry. But large stones block both bridge entrances because it is unsafe to cross by auto.

Last August, the county transferred ownership of two bridges, including Hess, to the Covered Bridge Association. Its members have patched up a few bullet holes, applied some much-needed new paint, replaced boards, and removed part of the asphalt road that had allowed runoff rain to rot portions of the bridge. Josiah Hess also sports new picnic tables, built by students from Columbia/Montour Vocational Technical School. A well-used trash can is a barometer of the popularity of this bridge with locals and out-of-towners.

Josiah Hess was named for a local owner of a sawmill after Joseph Redline built it in 1875 for $1,349.50.

Stillwater Bridge

Return to Route 487, turn right, and head north for 3.2 miles to Wesley Street and the Stillwater Bridge over Fishing Creek in the borough of Stillwater. Like Josiah Hess, this 168-footer is now the responsibility of the association, and it is in serious need of assistance.

It dates to 1849, but over the years rainwater has seeped in and rotted part of the north end of the span. The association replaced the tin roof and installed a steel beam underneath for support. With an appropriation from the county, the group hopes to contract with local Amish carpenters to jack up the bridge and make the necessary repairs - at a cost of $20,000 - before winter's ice and high water do even more damage.

The second-longest covered bridge in the county, Stillwater has an interesting herringbone wood deck. James McHenry, whose family was one of the first to settle in the area, built it for $1,124.

Now we're going to head northwest and "into the country" to two of my favorite smaller bridges, both of which are open to vehicular traffic. They also offer a bonus: access to Little Fishing Creek and far-from-the-madding-crowd fly fishing. This area is known for trout, and it is home base for two world-famous anglers and authors, Barry and Cathy Beck.

Jud Christian Bridge

From Stillwater, head north again on Route 487 and go 2.1 miles to Route 254. Turn left for 4.8 miles to tiny Rohrsburg. At the four-way stop sign, turn right, still on 254. Go 0.3 of a mile to the Austin Trail, turn right for 4.5 miles to a stop sign. Continue on Austin and drive 0.4 of a mile to Arden's Hill Road. Turn left and go down the hill to the Jud Christian covered bridge over Little Fishing Creek.

This span - all 55 feet and 10 inches of it - has been called "in near-perfect condition" for its age. You can still see the wooden pegs that William L. Manning used to help build it in 1876 - two years before Rutherford B. Hayes would become the first U.S. president to visit the area - for only $239. Its namesake was a local farmer and lumberman.

Creasyville Bridge

Return to the Austin Trail, which is also known here as Creasyville Hill Road, and bear left. Follow it for 1.3 miles to an unmarked road - remember, you're in the country now - and look for a yellow "One-Lane Bridge" sign. Turn left and follow the road to the Creasyville Bridge.

At 44 feet in length and 14 feet in width, this is one of the county's shortest covered bridges. Built with lumber from Irem Derr's sawmill in 1881 by T.S. Christian for $301.25, it is between Jackson and Pine Townships.

Now, about fly fishing. On my most recent visit to Columbia County, my friend Bob Marler, who lives in Benton, took me to a secluded section of Little Fishing Creek between Jud Christian and Creasyville bridges.

Because of the drought, water was low, and we easily waded upstream to a pool that Bob often fishes. He advised me to tie on a small, imitation grasshopper fly. "Cast it into that pool," he said. I did. As the fly landed, a big brown trout leapt from the water. But I wasn't expecting a fish on the first cast, and I missed hooking it.

On my second cast, a 7 1/2-inch native trout inhaled the grasshopper. I reeled it in and promptly returned the fish to the quietly gurgling stream. That was our only catch in a quarter-mile of wading, but it didn't matter.

I was just glad to be back in covered-bridge country, back in the past.

Contact George Ingram at ingramg@aol.com.

Covering Pa.'s Covered Bridges

Getting there

Bloomsburg, Pa., which is celebrating its bicentennial, is a good base for exploring covered bridges in Columbia and the adjoining counties of Montour and Northumberland. The town is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Philadelphia. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Exit 35 (Pocono) and head west on Interstate 80 to Exit 236, Lightstreet/Bloomsburg.

Getting around

The Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau, 121 Papermill Rd., Bloomsburg, Pa. 17815, has an excellent brochure and map of covered bridges in the area. Call 1-800-847-4810, or go to www.cmtpa.org.

Lodging

The Inn at Turkey Hill, at 991 Central Rd., is near the I-80 exit for Bloomsburg. There are 23 nicely appointed rooms and a lovely dining area, but I've found the kitchen to be inconsistent. Double-occupancy rooms range from $105 plus tax per night to $137 plus tax for the Stables, rooms with gas fireplaces and whirlpool. Phone: 570-387-1500; www.innatturkeyhill.com.

Fishing Creek Anglers Ltd. Bed & Breakfast at 314 St. Gabriels Rd., Benton, is a new place adjoining the area's best fly-fishing tackle shop. There are four knotty-pine paneled rooms, with satellite TV but no private bath, costing $70 a night. Phone 570-925-2709.

Dining

Rose Marie's opened last spring at 26 E. Rear Main St. in Bloomsburg on the site of a former notorious bar called Lemon's. Still a popular spot for pizza-loving Bloomsburg University students, this Italian restaurant turns out good, reasonably priced food. At a recent meal of veal scaloppini topped with crabmeat, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers in a red-wine mustard sauce, I had only one disappointment - the bar ran out of pinot grigio by the glass.

Russell's Restaurant & Clancy's Bistro, 117-125 W. Main St., Bloomsburg, features steaks and a superb cellar of California wines.

Lightstreet Hotel, 1361 Main St. in nearby Lightstreet, attracts locals for its seafood buffets.

In Benton, Patti La Bonte, owner of Kameeo's (formerly the Mortgaged Inn) at 4438 Red Rock Rd. (Route 487), has a new chef and ambitious plans for the kitchen.

Reading

Two good books are Pennsylvania's Covered Bridges: A Complete Guide, by Benjamin D. Evans and June R. Evans (University of Pittsburgh Press; 1993) and The Covered Bridges of Pennsylvania: A Guide, by Susan M. Zacher, (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; 1994).

Information

The Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau, phone 1-800-847-4810, or Web site www.cmtpa.org.

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