KEEP IT COV­ERED

New Brunswick’s many his­toric en­closed bridges are sturdy links to sim­pler, slower and safer times

Calgary Herald - - TRAVEL - AN­DRE RAMSHAW

If ever the world needed a bridge over trou­bled wa­ters, it’s in the year 2020.

And while the wa­ters are no less tur­bu­lent in Canada than else­where, one prov­ince has some­thing of a mo­nop­oly on get­ting us across in tran­quil­lity and com­fort.

Is it too soon for New Brunswick to pitch its mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of cov­ered bridges as a salve for our trou­bled souls?

Per­haps. But it’s hard to imag­ine a more calming draw for the post-pan­demic trav­eller.

As pho­tog­ra­pher and au­thor Joseph D. Con­will, who has writ­ten two books on the sub­ject, said of cov­ered bridges: “They prom­ise all the best fea­tures of by­gone coun­try life: a cool fra­grant wooden space like an old barn, built of hand-hewn tim­bers, be­side sunny fields or quiet forests, over rolling wa­ters.”

Canada had more than 1,400 of them at the end of the 19th cen­tury. But fewer than 150 ex­ist to­day, mostly in Que­bec and New Brunswick, which has 58 — down from al­most 350 in the 1950s.

The largest prov­ince in the Mar­itimes, New Brunswick’s place in the an­nals of man-made cross­ings is as­sured thanks to the Hart­land Bridge, which at a span of 390 me­tres or 1,282 feet over the Saint John River be­tween the com­mu­ni­ties of Hart­land and Somerville in Car­leton County, is the long­est cov­ered bridge in the world.

That’s 61 me­tres (200 feet) longer than its near­est ri­val, in Nor­way, ac­cord­ing to the New Brunswick Archives.

Con­sid­ered an en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel when it opened in 1901, it was left ex­posed un­til 1921 when it was fi­nally cov­ered af­ter a vo­cif­er­ous de­bate over how the en­clo­sure might cor­rupt the morals of its young peo­ple by en­cour­ag­ing de­bauch­ery within its walls.

In­deed, so great were the fears that the solic­i­tor-gen­eral, W.P. Jones, launched an in­quiry. In a let­ter from 1906 quoted by the Hart­land Ob­server, he wrote: “In many cases when a bridge sit­u­ated near a vil­lage has been cov­ered, it has proved very ob­jec­tion­able on ac­count of rough char­ac­ters who fre­quent it at night, fright­en­ing women and chil­dren and mak­ing a reg­u­lar nui­sance of it.”

Prag­ma­tism won out: Hart­land’s tim­ber bridge, like every other in the prov­ince, would soon rot if it were not cov­ered, last­ing only about 10 years com­pared to well over eight decades if prop­erly sealed.

Jones’s bridge-to-hell pre­dic­tions did not come to pass, but the en­closed spans earned a rep­u­ta­tion as “kiss­ing bridges” be­cause cou­ples pass­ing through in horse and buggy, bound to strict speed lim­its, would pause mid­way for a stealthy em­brace.

For those mak­ing the cross­ing at night — still re­stricted to a walk­ing pace amid the cob­webs, bats and shad­ows swirling in the gloom — they were known as “wish­ing bridges” as ner­vous riders wished for a safe pas­sage.

It was be­lieved that go­ing too fast would cre­ate a stand­ing wave that would cause the bridge to col­lapse.

Blessed with vast swaths of tim­ber, New Brunswick erected cov­ered bridges at a fu­ri­ous pace as de­mand grew for quick and sturdy struc­tures that would fa­cil­i­tate set­tle­ment and trade.

“A mighty race of cov­ered bridge builders arose,” archival doc­u­ments state. “It is a safe as­sump­tion that not one of them ever looked upon a set of spec­i­fi­ca­tions even re­motely re­sem­bling a blue­print.”

What they left be­hind, how­ever, is tes­ta­ment to the skill and in­ge­nu­ity of men who worked with lit­tle more than rough sketches and sim­ple hand tools — axes, augers and adzes — to build bridges that were stout enough to bear a herd of cattle.

Now a na­tional and pro­vin­cial his­toric site and com­mem­o­rated in a Canada Post stamp, Hart­land re­mains road­wor­thy and de­pend­able, de­spite “some in­ci­dents over the years,” with light­ing in­stalled in 1924 and a side walk­way added in 1945 so visitors can bet­ter ad­mire its con­struc­tion.

Trad­ing on the bridge’s fame, the nearby Cov­ered Bridge Potato Chip Com­pany of­fers a tasty aside with tours of its plant, which pro­duces snacks us­ing home­grown dark rus­set pota­toes, and a gift shop fea­tur­ing 30 flavour sea­son­ings.

Though Hart­land is the jewel in the crown, there are many other roofed bridges within easy driv­ing dis­tance of the two big­gest cities, Saint John and Monc­ton. New Brunswick’s tourism board’s web­site main­tains pho­tos, specs and driv­ing di­rec­tions.

Kings County, in the south of the prov­ince near Saint John, bills it­self as the Cov­ered Bridge Cap­i­tal of At­lantic Canada, with no fewer than 15 listed on the gov­ern­ment’s in­ven­tory. All are within easy reach, mak­ing for ef­fi­cient day trips.

Be warned that many spans are no longer func­tion­ing but still open for visitors. These in­clude the 1910 Lit­tle Lepreau River Bridge, near Mill Pond, about 30 min­utes’ drive south­west of Saint John, and Mill Brook in Nel­son Hol­low, Northum­ber­land County, which is the oldest of the lot, dat­ing to 1900.

Still proudly op­er­at­ing more than 110 years later is the Maxwell Cross­ing cov­ered bridge, built in 1910 about 4 km north of Saint Stephen.

Work­ing or idle, New Brunswick’s cov­ered bridges are un­der con­stant threat from flood­ing, in­dus­trial mishaps, car crashes and in­dif­fer­ent main­te­nance, the Na­tional Trust for Canada says.

In 2018, it added them to its top 10 na­tional list of en­dan­gered places.

Ray Boucher, pres­i­dent of the two-year-old Cov­ered Bridges Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of New Brunswick, fears up to 12 bridges could be lost in the next five years — in ad­di­tion to the six or more that have suc­cumbed to ac­ci­dents, van­dal­ism or floods since 2009.

“It’s a crime,” he told the CBC. “These are her­itage struc­tures that should be pre­served as her­itage build­ings.”

For its part, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has said it rec­og­nizes their cul­tural im­por­tance and place as “her­itage icons,” as well as their role as vi­tal trans­porta­tion links. With many pan­demic-scarred tourists seek­ing so­lace, New Brunswick’s cov­ered bridges could take on even greater sig­nif­i­cance as tan­gi­ble links to sim­pler, slower and safer times.

PHO­TOS: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOT­O

At 1,282 feet, the long­est wooden cov­ered bridge in the world is over the Saint John River in Hart­land, N.B.

This red wooden cov­ered bridge can be found on a re­mote road in New Brunswick’s Fundy Na­tional Park.

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