Saving Bridges, Old And New

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

Man, it's hot outside. The thermometer is reading north of the nineties, and even though the calibration is far from MILSPEC it confirms one thing — it's darn hot outside.

I'd sit in here in the air conditioning and write great prose all afternoon, but the aging air conditioner at Hacienda Hudson is feeling its years and isn't up to the task. What that means, in practical terms, is that it's hot as a box of chili peppers in here. Outside at least there's a breeze, so I think I'll finish this up and go sit on the porch a while with some cold iced tea or something and try to cool off a bit.

Summertime in the south is not for the faint of heart.

Tomorrow's the weekend, and it's supposed to be hot too. Maybe tomorrow I'll take the fly rod and go find a creek somewhere. Standing in a cool creek always makes things better, especially when the temp is approaching one-zero-zero.

But which creek?

Well, there's this one little creek up north of here a ways that I've been looking at for a while. I've heard it's got some pretty decent bass in it.

I've heard one other thing about it too — it's crossed by a covered bridge, one of the few left in the state.

Depending on how you count and who you ask, Georgia has just over a dozen historic covered bridges still standing. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the historians say, there were upwards of 250 of them scattered across the state. But by the mid 1950s the number was less than 80, and then 25 by the 1970s, and now just that dozen-plus-one.

Maybe I'd better go see this one while there's still time.

Why Were They Covered?

Covered bridges, by their very nature, need a lot of TLC. They were made of wood, for the most part, and wood over water means you've got to pay attention or something's gonna rot and fall down. They were also subject to fire (yes, wood bridges burn) and it seems that vandals invariably pick them out as favorite targets. All that, combined with motorists who can't read weight limit signs and (as they say) the usual ravages of time, means it's tough to be a covered bridge.

Why were they covered? There are lots of ideas. My daddy the bridge designer tells me that covering those old wood bridges was the ideal way to keep at least some of the elements at bay, no doubt extending life. He talks about sheltering the superstructure and things like that. What he means is that, if you keep rain off wood, it's going to last longer. Makes sense to me.

But there are other views. A buddy of mine, a fine fellow with a bent toward agricultural history, says it all had to do with mules and horses.

"Mules and horses don't like to cross open bridges," he explained. "But if you closed in the bridge, they didn't mind and would go right on across."

I'm not much of a horse historian, and I don't understand the bridge-crossing preferences of either horses or mules, but I'll assume he knows what he's talking about and so that makes sense to me too.

But it's not my favorite explanation. My favorite is the one offered by my wife's grandmother years ago. Mother Dee, as we called her, spent many years in the rural south and remembered when there were a lot more of the old timber tunnels.

"So why do you think they were covered?" I asked her one day.

"Why, you should know the answer to that," she said, cocking her head a bit. "I understand that they were covered to provide a bit of, well, privacy."

Sounds like a plan to me.

How They Kept The Old Ones Standing

Remember the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA)? According to Georgia DOT, as part of that Act, a Transportation Enhancement Program was established to "enrich the traveling experience through enhancements to the transportation system." The bottom line is that FHWA ended up providing 80 percent matching funds for projects meeting certain criteria, and in Georgia that included making needed repairs on the state's historic covered bridges.

As a result, Georgia let close to $1.6 million for repairing a number of the bridges, completing the work by the end of 1999. The program was a huge success — so much so that FHWA went on to designate $10 million in additional funding for similar rehab work in other states — and the payoff was preservation of a fascinating piece of infrastructure history.

Including the one I'm going to go see this weekend. It'll be fun. Maybe I'll even catch a few fish. And you can be sure that I'll stop at that barbecue joint I know for some lunch on the way home.

What About the New Ones?

On the way to that old bridge, of course, I'll be crossing a bunch of much more modern structures. Just like the old timber tunnels, our modern bridges are there for one reason — to get traffic from point A to point B.

And every time I cross one, I'll ask myself the question that a lot of people are asking: How are all the new bridges faring these days?

According to the news, armies of experts, and any one of dozens of studies and reports, many of our "new" bridges are not faring very well. They too suffer from high traffic loads, and many are reaching the end of their design lifetimes.

Our new bridges need attention too, and the lesson is clear:

Whether it's a many-decades-old timber tunnel, or a structure of concrete and steel, you've got to maintain it to keep it standing strong.

These days, the much-needed funding for maintaining not only bridges but other crucial infrastructure elements is becoming harder and harder to find. As things get tight, the powers that be look for politically expedient ways to save a nickel here and cut a dime there. Pretty soon the cuts add up, the revenue fades, and things like bridge repair and other highway maintenance and construction efforts start to suffer. The roads crumble. The bridges crack, sag and sometimes fail. People get hurt.

You'd think it wouldn't come to that, but it does and it'll probably stay that way till the mythical "they" gets the word that crumbling infrastructure is not what the public wants to see.

I was really glad to see that covered bridge rehabilitation effort take place, all those several years ago, for the money that was spent will ensure that an invaluable resource stays in place for many more years to come.

And I hope that the political budget-setting types who shell out the money don't miss the one big critical lesson in all of this: Whether the infrastructure is old and historic or new and mission-critical, we've got to stay on top of infrastructure maintenance if we want our infrastructure to last.

Don't be bashful. Let 'em know what you think. It won't hurt a bit, and it just might do some good.