Introduction To Wooden Treasures, the Story of Bucks County’s Covered Bridges

Here is a special preview of my new book “Wooden Treasures: The Story of Bucks County’s Covered Bridges.” The book is about 222 pages long and includes more than 240 images and drawings, with many published publicly for the first time. For more information about the book “Wooden Treasures,”  go to


Dr. Anderson M. Scruggs liked to send poems to the New York Times, which featured reader submissions during the 1930s. Dentistry was Scruggs’ paid profession and he taught it at Atlanta Southern Dental College in Georgia. However, Scruggs loved writing poetry about rural life based on his childhood experiences in West Point, Georgia, a small railroad town on the Chattahoochee River.

Horace King and his family built many of the covered bridges on the Chattahoochee. King was a former slave who gained his freedom from money received from his master and bridge-building partner, John Godwin. King used a bridge design patented by New England architect Ithiel Town, which King adapted for use not only over the Chattahoochee River, but throughout Georgia and Alabama. King and his four sons designed and built more than 100 covered bridges in the South. By 1932, many of King’s covered bridges were disappearing as Georgia’s state highway department demolished them and built steel replacements better suited for motor vehicles. That didn’t stop Anderson from questioning why this was happening to King’s bridges in rural Georgia.

“Only the country folk, whose careless tread endears a dusty road, can ever know the peaceful, clattering joy of rude planks spread above a drowsy creek that gleams below,” Scruggs wrote. “Yet there are soulless men whose hand and brain tear down what time will never give again.”[1]

Scruggs’ poem soon became popular in the South, New England, and Pennsylvania where other state highway departments were eliminating covered bridges. Early bridge preservationists in Vermont and New Hampshire used the poem later in the 1930s in their efforts to protest covered bridge demolitions; New Hampshire also included the poem in its 1939 World’s Fair exhibit.

By 1940, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier publicly questioned the Pennsylvania Department of Highway’s strategy of covered bridge demolitions. Publisher Leon Lowengard printed Scruggs’ poem and then told readers that he recalled it as he stood with his grandson at the former site of a covered bridge on the Tuscarora Creek.

“I suppose its removal was necessary, but I personally am sorry that this and many another old covered bridge like it are being removed. They are so typical early American in this day of turmoil and change that I would like to hang on to them to preserve them, even though it may be necessary to direct traffic over a new and wider bridge at a new site,” Lowengard wrote.[2] “I am hopeful that the State Highway Department and the Commissioners of many counties will follow the example of those in Cumberland, where repairs are being made to quite a few of the old covered bridges, in order that they may be preserved. These weather-beaten romantic structures of another generation have an appeal all their own,” Lowengard pondered.

Figure 1. Dr. Nelson Fithian Davis
Courtesy of Special Collections/University Archives, Ellen Clarke Bertrand Library, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. This image may be protected under US. Copyright law and may not be reproduced.

During the 1930s, a professor at Bucknell University, Dr. Nelson Fithian Davis, also became obsessed with creating a photographic record of covered bridges that seemed on the verge of extinction. Toward the end of his life, Davis lectured about covered bridges at Bucknell using lantern slides. He spent his time in 1936 and 1937 touring the state, taking 268 meticulous pictures of covered bridges, including the scenery at each bridge, since Davis was primarily a biology professor.

In July 1937, Davis took highly detailed photographs of 17 covered bridges in Bucks County, for posterity’s sake.  Davis’s first trip focused on Upper Bucks County, and a second two-day trip captured eight covered bridges over or near the Delaware River and in Lower Bucks County that would disappear by 1955. Some of the structures, such as Mood’s Covered Bridge in East Rockhill Township, were badly in need of repair. Others, like the Finland Covered Bridge in Milford Township or the Church Hill Covered Bridge in Weisel, were structurally sound. Today, only five of those 17 bridges photographed by Davis survive.Figure 2. Davis’s photo of Church Hill Bridge in Weisel, just before its demolition.
Courtesy of Special Collections/University Archives, Ellen Clarke Bertrand Library, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. This image may be protected under US. Copyright law and may not be reproduced.

To be sure, folks like Scruggs, Lowengard and Davis considered these wooden relics as Wooden Treasures. In Bucks County, the feeling was mutual, where taking long drives to photograph covered bridges was becoming popular. For example, George Mitchell, a young man who lived across from Doylestown’s Mercer Museum, drove around the county with his camera in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And even younger person, George Michener Hart, curated covered bridge photos and did a presentation to the Bucks County Historical Society in 1935 at the age of 17 that was the first published article about Bucks County’s covered bridges. Hart later became one of Pennsylvania’s foremost railroad historians.

Popular opposition to covered bridge demolitions also started in Bucks County during the 1930s. The Bucks County Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Delaware Valley Protective Association publicly criticized the state’s abandonment of Neeley’s Covered Bridge in Washington’s Crossing State Park in 1935. State officials had agreed to relocate the historic bridge within new park over a canal, only to change their minds and leave the bridge to rot in a field by a road.

And in Perkasie, a small Upper Bucks County town much like Scruggs’ West Point, Georgia, residents in 1938 pressed county officials to repair two of its three local covered bridges, including the oldest remaining one in the county: the South Perkasie Covered Bridge. Instead, the county repaired the South Perkasie bridge and demolished nearby Steeley’s Covered Bridge, about two miles east of town. A local postal worker, Andy Schuler, suggested moving the South Perkasie Covered Bridge to a new park built by the Works Progress Administration, called Lenape Park, to save it from an unavoidable fate.[3]

A generation later, Schuler would help lead the effort to move the bridge to Lenape Park after Bucks County finally condemned it in 1958. Moving an intact covered bridge for posterity’s sake was a novel idea. Covered bridges had been moved before, but only after they were taken apart and transported to different locations.[4] In all these cases, the bridges were shipped to their new homes and reassembled, with little publicity. The South Perkasie Covered Bridge situation was different. Local citizens funded the move, managed by the home-town Perkasie Anniversary and Historical Society, to preserve the bridge as a “shrine” in Lenape Park. The local newspapers wrote about the controversy for months and local television crews covered the event. Also, in attendance that day was Sara Maynard Clark, a journalist, photographer, and historian who had become an important figure in the county’s historic preservation efforts. Clark edited Bucks County Traveler magazine and was the “unofficial historian” of Bucks County during the 1950s and 1960s.

In hindsight, the fight to save Bucks County’s covered bridges officially started on August 15, 1958, when workers slowly began moving the old South Perkasie Covered Bridge from its abutments. An image of the bridge lifted by a crane became the national Associated Press photo of the day on Saturday, August 23, 1958, appearing in newspapers from Oregon to Texas to Georgia.[5]

Figure 3. The South Perkasie Covered Bridge on the move, 1958
Credit: Sara Maynard Clark; From the Collection of the Mercer Museum Library of the Bucks County Historical Society

Locally and nationally, the efforts to save covered bridges from extinction represented a rejection, at least in part, of government policies that preached everything new was good and the old was just a remnant of horse-and-buggy days. By the 1960s, local political leaders mostly embraced that idea that covered bridges were “wooden treasures” and Bucks County made it an official policy to promote cultural tourism that focused on automobile covered bridge tours. In fact, the red covered bridge became one of the county’s official symbols—on the same level as George Washington and William Penn’s images.

To understand why preservation happened, one only must look at Bucks County’s neighbors. At one time, Montgomery County shared three covered bridges with Bucks County and had at least 24 covered bridges. The county’s demolition of Markley’s Mill Covered Bridge in Pennsburg in 1956, to make way for a reservoir, saw the last original covered bridge disappear from the county. In 1958, Lehigh County only had seven of 19 covered bridges still in service, while Northampton County had one covered bridge when it once had at least a dozen.

Philadelphia also had least a dozen covered bridges over the ages; however, by 1958 only one remained in Fairmount Park. The state of New Jersey had several dozen covered bridges in its history. By 1958, only one existed in the Garden State, the Green Sergeant Covered Bridge, which would survive extinction two years later only after a bitter battle between residents and government officials.

This book tells the story of how covered bridges had become ingrained in everyday Bucks County life for generations. That legacy played an important role in the popular rejection of covered bridge demolitions in the late 1950s, when the “weather-beaten romantic structures” gained new appreciation in a society dominated by the Baby Boom and consumer culture. Or perhaps “rejection” is too strong a word to describe the phenomena. Appreciation of the past, which played a bigger role in national historic preservation efforts in the 1960s, might be more accurate.

In addition to the covered bridges within Bucks County, a network of 11 covered bridges, longer than any covered bridge that exists today in the United States, once crossed from Bucks County into New Jersey on the Delaware River starting in 1806. Unlike their smaller counterparts, they weren’t built by the county. Because of the rules governing waters that bound two states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey granted charters to private shareholder companies that sold stock, charged tolls, and paid to maintain these massive structures. The biggest, the Trenton City Delaware River Bridge that spanned from Morrisville, Pa., to Trenton’s Calhoun Street, was more than 1,200 feet long.

By 1919, only three covered wooden bridges remained on the Delaware River in Bucks County. The historic October 1903 Pumpkin Flood had wiped out four massive bridges in one event. Three other perished in fires in 1884, 1892 and 1923. Several remaining covered bridges on the Delaware River added metal spans to replace sections lost in the 1903 flood. In 1945, the Delaware River Joint Bridge Commission decided to close the Lumberville Covered Bridge for safety reasons when its wooden sections became unusable for road traffic, ending a 140-year era of the grand timber structures spanning the river between Bucks County and New Jersey. It was replaced by a Roebling walking bridge.

The long-lost river covered bridges were part of a transportation network that tied together roads, canals, and eventually a train system. This interconnected transportation web allowed products to flow between towns and to major markets like Philadelphia, forming the backbone of Bucks County’s economy in the pre-Industrial Revolution era.

But to understand the origins of covered bridges in Bucks County, we need to start with the first covered bridge builders in America, and their competition to connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the pre-Industrial era in the early 19th century. The success of those early bridge-building projects led to an age where great wooden bridges spanned the Delaware River. The technology also paved the way for at least 39 covered bridges paid for by Bucks County between 1825 and 1875.

Figure 4. The 1903 Pumpkin Flood reduced the great covered bridge at New Hope and Lambertville to rubble. Credit: Todd R. Clark Collection

In the end, 10 original Bucks County covered bridges have survived after a considerable fight to save them over three generations. Two other covered bridges were rebuilt as replicas after they fell victim to arson in recent years. This is their story, and the story of those bridges mostly forgotten now that played an important role in everyday life, which only exist as photographs taken for posterity by people like Dr. Nelson F. Davis, George A. Mitchell, George M. Hart, Sara Maynard Clark, and George Scheller. They knew the covered bridges were wooden treasures to be sought out and cherished while the structures still existed.

[1] The Selinsgrove Times-Tribune (Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania), September 15, 1932, 4. Scruggs’ poem appeared in the New York Times and was quickly republished in other newspapers.

[2] Harrisburg Sunday Courier, June 9, 1940, 6.

[3] The Central News (Perkasie, Pa.), November 10, 1938, 2.

[4] Henry Ford learned of the Ackley covered bridge’s impending demolition in 1937 in western Pennsylvania and had it moved to his Greenfield Village Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1949, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont moved a bridge onto its grounds near Lake Champlain. In 1952, Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts acquired the Taft Covered Bridge in Vermont. At least three other covered bridges were moved by private groups or government officials before 1958 nationally.

[5] The Des Moines Register, August 23, 1958, 2.

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