In the summer of 1965, as the story goes, Robert Kincaid photographed the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, for National Geographic in the early morning fog, the filtered light showing off their trusses and weathered sides. Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County (1992) and Kincaid’s love affair with a farmer’s wife made Iowa's Roseman Covered Bridge (1883) famous and unearthed a hidden love for a loose network of North American covered bridges. Like the 50 million readers worldwide who held it on the New York Times Bestseller’s List for 164 consecutive weeks, I derived secret guilty pleasure from Bridges, partly for the improbable love story, but mainly for the romance it ignited with a long forgotten countryside history.
The Beaverkill Valley is home to one such covered bridge, a 98-foot beauty that traverses the famed Beaverkill River. If you’ve never met her, the Beaverkill Covered Bridge exudes history and asks the question, “What have you seen?” Certainly, she’s witnessed a kiss or two and is likely the only one who could vouch for the veracity of countless fish tales.
PIONEERING COMMUNITY BUILT AROUND A TANNERY
Before time was recorded in buildings and books, the Beaverkill River served as a boundary between competing Indian tribes. When white settlers eventually made their way here, life organized itself around the river too, and around its rich natural resources, especially the Eastern Hemlock whose bark fueled an 1830s tannery built near the river and site of the future bridge. Skins arrived at the tannery from Canada and even Latin America, where men converted them to supple hides in a painstaking and pungent process and then funneled them through a canal transport system that connected the Catskills to New York markets via the Hudson River. Leather from the tannery also soled shoes for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
The construction of the Beaverkill Covered Bridge began in 1860 and was finished five years later, the same year President Lincoln was assassinated. The tannery business had attracted other settlers and a blacksmith and a few shops cropped up nearby to serve them. Easy transport from one side of the river to the other was inevitable. Eighteenth and 19th century bridges, modeled after earlier German and Austrian ones, were covered to extend their longevity beyond a limited 10 to 15 years by protecting them from the elements. The Beaverkill Covered Bridge was special. Its builders incorporated an 1820 patented design of latticed trusses, a beautiful and strong construction that lasted – with a few reparations – for nearly 150 years.
Not long after the bridge was completed, the tannery business suffered a slow-down. With the extensive stand of Eastern Hemlocks depleted and the railroad's arrival in Livingston Manor and Roscoe (1860), the center of commerce shifted, eventually converting Beaverkill into a sleepy hamlet. As the river cleared of tannery toxins, a new life emerged for the area. Local farmers began to take on boarders interested in fishing the Beaverkill River. Early anglers, such as Theodore Gordon (father of the famous Quill Gordon fly), perfected their casts and pioneered dry fly fishing along the shores of the Beaverkill and in the deep pool near the covered bridge where trout lay resting, waiting. The nearby 400-acre Trout Valley Farm hosted fishermen for decades, fulfilling their yearning for the outdoors, providing an escape, and a way to connect with wildlife while thigh deep in the cool of the stream. The flood of characters saturated the Beaverkill with fish tales, folklore and an emerging conservationist spirit, an enduring energy that is still palpable today.
A SHIFT FROM INDUSTRY TO RECREATION
In the 1920s, with more than half a century's reputation as a resort and recreation area under its belt, the territory of the old tannery converted to a campsite that still boasts 52 tent sites on both sides of the river. During the Great Depression, FDR sent 300 young men to the area under the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) – a public work relief program for unemployed, unmarried men – to build outdoor fireplaces, outbuildings, walkways, fences and rails. For a place to sleep, meals and a few dollars here and there for good, honest work, the men toiled until 1938. To this day, the same spot is still popular for tent camping, maintaining its rustic heritage by resisting ever having electricity, a status that has perpetuated the site's purity and its attraction to visitors who appreciate natural simplicity.
MODERN THREATS & THOUGHTFUL DEFENSE
The greatest threat to the Beaverkill Covered Bridge came in 1948, eighty-three years after it was completed. Modern sensibilities and the need to accommodate bigger and much heavier vehicles forced the suggestion: Why not replace the old wooden covered bridge with a stronger, more modern metal bridge?
Friends of the bridge came to its defense, preventing its replacement and committing $700 to its repair. But early defenders did more than earn just a stay of execution for the bridge; they forever shifted the conversation from replacement to preservation leaving their successors to figure out not whether to preserve it, but how to do it. Piecemeal repairs followed as funds would allow. Ownership of the bridge shifted -- initially to the county, under whose guardianship decades of repairs took place, and then to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) -- and the Beaverkill Covered Bridge was safe.
Fast-forward to 1997, the bridge's preservation still a community hot-topic, and Patricia Adams -- a caring resident of the 1800s farmhouse closest to the bridge that belonged to the original tannery's owner -- authors a letter formalizing a network of long-time supporters into Friends of Beaverkill Community. The Friends commit themselves to address four key preservation issues, that include two bridges, a church and the campsite. The galvanization of Friends ushered in a new era of engaged local citizen action and raised an initial $60,000 to help with the bridge's restoration. This was just the beginning.
At the center of the bridge's restoration story is a recipe rich in grass roots collaboration, creative strategy and the inspiration of government agencies to fulfill their best roles in society with people on the inside who care deeply about seeing a long-term project through to perfection. In the most strategic move since the Beaverkill Covered Bridge's construction, Governor Pataki, an environmentalist spurred on by friends and neighbors familiar with the bridge's needs, secured its future on the National Register of Historic Places (2007).
The rush of currents and eddies that flow beneath the bridge echo the names of the lettered friends who have helped it on its journey toward a full recovery. OSI (Open Space Institute), DEC (the New York State Department for Environmental Conservation), DOT (the New York State Department of Transportation), NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and the original CCC, each one playing an important role and serving as a model for government and private entities working together in a way we wish would be replicated in Washington and in State capitols across the nation. This is not to say that the road has been free of potholes or other obstacles, but more that despite any differences or challenges, the lines of communication have been kept open and the private citizens, government leaders and caring communities have built bridges, not burned them.
Funds for repairs and restoration have come from groups of concerned citizens, from the federal government, from New York state and its cooperating agencies. Some early repairs, executed with the right purpose in mind, are now being reconsidered. An early priority to save the bridge has now become a mission to restore it to its historical originality. A cement abutment on one side of the bridge covers century-old fieldstone and, while fortifying, does not reflect the 1860s aesthetic. Similarly, when the restoration is complete, the approaching ramp on the other side will shield cement reinforcements with a fieldstone facade to reflect the original look. A deepening appreciation for the work the CCC did during the Depression will turn efforts toward reestablishing the ramps and rails and historic outbuildings to their 1930s glory.
LOTS OF TROLLS
Weekenders since 1964 and full-time residents since 2007, Patricia and John Adams have lived in the house closest house to the bridge watching as the now forever wild forest reestablishes its roots, as the waters flow beneath the bridge and time passes. If something changes here, they see it. If someone walks here, they call them friends. Patricia and John share a deep respect for the new Americans, immigrants who have settled in nearby Liberty and other towns, who appreciate being able to bring three generations together for a cookout on a weekend under the stars at the campsites -- a vacation that is as wholesome and connecting as it is affordable. To the Adams and others who visit and appreciate her, the bridge is a neighbor and friend, an observer of time and change and a bookmark that reminds us of the history that has passed here. She is an old friend worth watching over, protecting. Patricia affectionately refers to John, her husband of 50-plus years, as "the troll under the bridge" emphasizing that he merely picked up the torch from history's trolls and continues to busy himself by working with and anointing other trolls. The business of being a troll has been effective over the years and hopefully continues to be contagious.
The work on the Bridge itself almost seems easy compared to all the years of advocacy since 1948. For its most recent and most comprehensive restoration, to which the state and its agencies committed $2 million initially and another $500,000 subsequently, the bridge has been offline since 2015, its restoration now nearly complete. To straighten and strengthen the existing structure, engineers inserted a 140-foot temporary bridge inside it. A new facade adorns the outside in exactly the same pattern as the original with the beautiful and structural diagonal interior trusses peeking out from under the metal roof, allowing air and light to circulate within while protecting it from the rain, snow and harsh winds that gust down the river. The boards will soon weather to a dusty brown. Wooden pins that held the trusses in place were carefully removed and preserved, and metal ones were inserted in their stead to gird the bridge's coming decades. Every single piece of the original bridge was assessed in painstaking detail and preserved if possible. Restorers have poured as much love as sweat into the bridge's face-lift to prepare her for her next 150 years and for her next generations of visitors who stand poised for stolen kisses, family picnics and new fish tales.
BE A BRIDGE BUILDER
The Beaverkill Covered Bridge connects one side of the Beaverkill River with the other, it links us to a fascinating history of the area, and it cements long-time residents and new American visitors together as one appreciative community. You, too, can be a part of the bridge's past and its future. Time and use and weather make restoration an ongoing process. And the trolls, now too many to count, are dedicated to preserving the bridge's heritage by reverting every detail back to its historic integrity. If you would like to be counted among them, you are invited to:
Join Friends of Beaverkill Community -- $25 per year to join and the FoBC will invite you to a summer meeting every year, AND
Make a Donation toward the Bridge's Full Restoration -- Any amount you give is helpful. If you'd like to make a tax deductible donation to the bridge, donate to the Open Space Institute and note that your donation is for the Beaverkill Covered Bridge Restoration Project.
If you are at all intrigued, like I am, with the history and stories of the Beaverkill, stop by the General Store in Lew Beach and pick up your own copy of Stories of the Beaverkill, put out by Friends of Beaverkill Community and you will have delightful stories to read and old photos to peruse this winter by the fire. The Friends also have a website.
I hope you'll take a drive, a stroll, some time, a friend and your fly rod to visit the Beaverkill Covered Bridge and to be part of its future. Thanks to the many trolls -- past and present -- it will be there waiting for you.
Build Bridges. XOXO Farm Girl