The Chesapeake Bay has drawn travel and trade for thousands of years, its tidal rivers and natural harbors connecting people with others across the region and across the world. But, farther upstream, the waters that feed the Bay are less cooperative.
As the Coastal Plain gives ways to valleys and mountains, rivers narrow into a tangle of streams and creeks. Like the Bay, these beautiful waterways have sustained human and aquatic life for ages, but many are also rocky, shallow and flood-prone.
Historically, people in these areas have been less interested in traveling by water. They mostly just wanted to cross it. During the 1800s, covered bridges were a popular solution.
“People have asked me if farmers built covered bridges to keep their cows dry,” said Christopher Haugh, scenic byways manager for the Frederick County Tourism Council in Maryland. “But that’s not why they were covered. They were covered so they would last longer.”
Pennsylvania was industrious, erecting an estimated 1,500 covered bridges throughout the state. About 200 stand today. Hundreds were built in Maryland and Virginia, but only a handful remain. Most are in scenic rural landscapes with low traffic, well worth a bike ride or a leisurely drive in any season — and routes have been mapped to help you find them.
Frederick County, north of Washington, DC, has three of the six covered bridges in Maryland that are accessible to the public. All three stand with rustic elegance and barn-red planks on rural roads hugged by trees and farms. They cross tributaries to the Monocacy River, which flows south and joins the Potomac River.
The Frederick County Tourism Council has created self-guided tours for visiting the bridges both by bike and by car.
“The bridges are real treasures,” Haugh said. “And as a bonus, you have this sweeping farmland with a mountain backdrop. It’s a beautiful thing.”
You can easily follow the driving tour in half a day — longer if you like — or access at least one of the bridges with a quick detour off U.S. Route 15.
The bike route is one of several heritage tours laid out for cyclists. It starts at Utica Park, a former farm with lots of sports fields and parking, which is easy to access and popular with biking groups. The full loop covers about 40 miles and varies a bit from the suggested driving route. Most of the bike route is relatively flat, with gentle rolls and a few long grades.
Maps for both tours are available on the Internet at www.visitfrederick.org or from the visitors’ center in the city of Frederick.
The covered bridges are clustered in the northern part of the county, where German families began settling in the early 1700s. The newcomers made their way along paths and stream corridors used by American Indians and hauled wagons directly through streams at the best spots they could find.
“This was Maryland’s western frontier, and it was a challenge for the first settlers,” Haugh said.
Once villages were established, local residents needed to move cargo to markets. Jostling their wagons across a stream was too risky, so they began building bridges. Haugh suspects that many of the county’s current bridges mark places where Indians and settlers first chose to ford the streams.
“Where you find bridges today, these are probably age-old crossings,” Haugh said.
The first covered bridge on the Frederick County tour, located in the village of Utica, is an exception.
The Utica bridge, first built in 1850, originally crossed the Monocacy not far from its current location. In 1889, a devastating storm — the same one that triggered the infamous flood in Johnstown, PA — washed the bridge off its footing. The community salvaged its remains and rebuilt the 101-foot bridge on Fishing Creek.
The next bridge, known as Loy’s Station, crosses Owens Creek. If you continue the tour from Utica, you’ll reach it by way of Hessong Bridge Road, which is one of the oldest roads in Frederick County. It was used by early German immigrants and now passes through the old agricultural hub of Lewistown, where you can grab snacks at the general store.
After a few turns, you’ll emerge on the Old Frederick Road, which was once the main route north to Gettysburg, PA. In 1863, Union troops crossed Owens Creek at the same spot where the Loy’s Station bridge now stands as they moved to and from the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Loy’s Station bridge is a great choice for a longer stop because there’s a small park, with dedicated parking, picnic tables, grills and play equipment, right next to the bridge. “In the summer you can bring the kids, and they can wade and catch crayfish,” Haugh said.
There’s also a geocache on the site.
The Loy’s Station bridge was built in 1880 and stood for more than a century until arson took a serious toll. It was rebuilt in 1991, but original timbers are still part of the 90-foot structure.
The third and final bridge also crosses Owens Creek, at a site farther upstream on Roddy Road near the town of Thurmont.
“Roddy is a favorite,” Haugh said. “People take a lot of pictures here because it frames up so nicely with the trees and has a beautiful approach.”
The Roddy Road bridge is nestled in the crook of a 90-degree curve, which has given this bridge a struggle for existence. “A lot of trucks hit this one. They don’t slow down, or they don’t pay attention to the clearance height,” Haugh said. “We even had a car in here that spun and got wedged in.”
This is not a high-traffic area, just a curve that warrants caution. If you walk or bike through any covered bridge to enjoy the aura of a heavy-timbered echo, listen for the sound of approaching cars.
There has been plenty of time (and practical reasons) for replacing covered bridges with modern bridges of concrete and metal. But most covered bridges that remain in the Chesapeake Bay region have champions who keep them well-maintained despite repeat traumas from arson, accidents and acts of nature.
Dean Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald’s Heavy Timber Construction, has donated services and expertise to keep the covered bridges of Frederick County in good shape.
“I grew up near the Roddy Road bridge,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s where I went when I ran away from home.”
As a construction professional, Fitzgerald appreciates covered bridges for both their elegance and practicality. “We have this image of granny driving a buggy across the bridge on the way to church, but those bridges were workhorses,” Fitzgerald said. “They were built for heavy traffic, in places near mills.”
Fitzgerald is impressed by the care and sturdiness of their construction, given the great expense it took to build them. Many were privately funded.
“These were people who put their values into their building,” Fitzgerald said. “They put up those bridges so they would last longer than anyone alive, and they did.”
With luck, people will be walking, driving and bicycling across them for centuries to come.
Finding covered bridges in the Chesapeake Bay region
Maryland: For information about the covered bridges of Frederick County, visit www.visitfrederick.org. The driving tour is found under Explore>Bridges. The bike route, called the North County Bridge Sampler, can be accessed among the heritage bicycle tours listed under Explore>Tours. You can also call the visitor’s center at 800-999-3613 or stop by at 151 S. East Street in Frederick, MD.
Information and driving directions to these bridges, as well as those in northeastern Maryland, is also found at www.mdcoveredbridges.com.
Virginia: Five of the eight covered bridges in Virginia, located in the western part of the state, are accessible to the public. The Humpback Bridge in Alleghany County was designed with an arc that gives the entire bridge a bowed appearance. It’s said to be the only remaining bridge of its kind in the United States.
The Virginia Department of Transportation offers a hub of information, including a map, video and brochure,at www.virginiadot.org/info/faq-covbridge.asp. Information is also available at www.virginia.org/coveredbridges.
Pennsylvania: Lancaster County, which borders the Susquehanna River, has 28 covered bridges — more than any other county in Pennsylvania. The largest covered bridge ever built once stood in Lancaster County, crossing a 5,960-foot span over the Susquehanna between Columbia and Wrightsville. Ice and high water destroyed the bridge in 1832. The Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau has five driving tours for covered bridges in Lancaster County. You’ll find detailed directions, as well as things to do along the way, at www.padutchcountry.com under Things to Do>Covered Bridges.
For an overview of covered bridges in Pennsylvania, visit www.pacoveredbridges.com.