In August 2023, I ventured into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, on an exploration of its venerable bridges. These timeless steel and iron trusses were built during the dawn of the automobile era, paralleling the Virginia Good Roads Movement. This initiative advocated for legislative support for road taxes, aiming to improve county roads, replace numerous fords, and establish efficient farm-to-market routes.
My journey began in Rockbridge County at the Potter-Wade Mill Bridge. This Pratt through truss, built in 1916 by Roanoke Iron & Bridge Works, gracefully stretches VA Route 644 across Colliers Creek. Its simplistic design echos the adjoining Potter-Wade Mill.
Augusta County is home to the Carpenter’s Ford Bridge, a now-closed Pratt through truss. This structure once ushered Craig Shop Road over the Middle River, its construction sparked by a 1903 petition from local landowners, including John Will Carpenter. By June 1904, the Brackett Bridge Company of Cincinnati had completed the project. However, by October 2019, time had taken its toll, and the bridge was closed due to structural deterioration.
Not far off stands the Knightly Bridge. Constructed in 1915 by the Champion Bridge Company, it bears VA Route 778 across the Middle River with a distinctive single-span, pin-connected steel Camelback Parker truss. The area surrounding the Knightly Bridge has a rich agricultural tapestry. Once a tobacco-farming domain, it pivoted to wheat by 1790, riding the wave of high European prices during the French Revolution. This transition spurred the emergence of gristmills and a blossoming road network. By 1885, Augusta County boasted 81 gristmills, 16 sawmills, five combination mills, one plaster mill, and a carding mill.
A bridge proposal over the Middle River was pitched to the county in 1909 by the Knightly Milling Company. It wasn’t until 1914 that the county inked a deal with the Champion Bridge Company, leading to the completion of the bridge the following year. In a pattern reminiscent of the Carpenter’s Ford Bridge, the Knightly Bridge too closed in October 2019 due to structural concerns but reopened in December after necessary repairs.
Mount Meridian hosts another Pratt through truss bridge over the Middle River. Initially, a ford had been set up there around 1865, followed by a bridge comprising an iron span on masonry foundations with wooden flanks. This structure was replaced in 1907 by a three-span truss bridge by the Champion Bridge Company.
In 1967, Snowflake Mill Road (VA Route 256) was re-routed between Interstate 81 at Weyers Cave and US Route 340 at Grottoes, which included the construction of a new bridge over the Middle River at Mount Meridian.
The relentless forces of nature and regular floods made the upkeep of the old 1907 bridge challenging. While the Virginia Department of Transportation contemplated shutting it down after a 1985 flood, community opposition kept it alive until 1997. By 2014, two of its spans had been sold and dismantled.
Lastly, in Mount Jackson, a Warren through truss from 1933 once served US Route 11 across the North Fork Shenandoah River, erected by the Roanoke Iron & Bridge Works. In the summer of 2019, the Virginia Department of Transportation secured approval to replace the crossing, which had reached the end of its service life. A new Mount Jackson Bridge opened to the motoring public in July 2023.
Virginia is home to an array of historic covered bridges, each narrating its own unique tale. I only had time to visit two on this trip.
One such architectural gem is the Biedler Farm Covered Bridge, nestled over Smith Creek in Rockingham County. With a kind nod from the landowner, I traversed a rustic gravel path to discover this remarkable structure, showcasing a blend of a multiple Kingpost truss with a Burr arch. This bridge, erected in 1888, is the handiwork of Daniel Biedler, a Civil War veteran who served under the famed Stonewall Brigade.
Journeying on, Shenandoah County unfolds the story of the Meem’s Bottom Covered Bridge. Spanning the North Fork Shenandoah River, this bridge was birthed in 1893 by the combined craftsmanship of Franklin Hiser Wissler and John W. V. Woods. Its creation followed the unfortunate destruction of its predecessors in the floods of 1870 and 1877. Taking its name from the influential Meem family, local landholders, the bridge stands as a testament to their legacy.
By the late 1970s, Meem’s Bottom held the distinct honor of being the sole covered bridge in operation on a state highway. But tragedy struck in 1976 when an arson attack by Clyde Meadows nearly erased its historical significance. Recognizing its invaluable contribution to Virginia’s heritage, the Virginia Department of Transportation pledged its restoration in 1977. The state subsequently poured $280,000 into this endeavor.
Salvaged timbers breathed new life into the bridge in 1979, complemented by modern steel beams and concrete piers. The cost? A cool $250,000. On August 30th of the same year, the bridge stood proudly re-dedicated, marking a first for the Virginia Department of Transportation – their maiden venture into wooden bridge construction in their extensive 73-year history. The Federal Highway Administration later celebrated this monumental effort with a national environmental and conservation accolade.
However, history has a way of leaving its mark. Come October 1982, an inspection unearthed a crack in its Burr arch and rot in its heart-pine wood, sealing its temporary closure. It’s surmised that moisture, absorbed during its post-arson exposure, combined with a sticky fire-retardant during restoration, created a moist haven for fungus, leading to decay.
The bridges of the Shenandoah Valley serve as reminders of Virginia’s rich history, resilience, and the undying spirit to preserve its past.