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A Kiss in the Dark

The vanishing beauty of covered bridges

Will Ferguson

The floodwaters had been rising all day. The road was submerged, the fields were swamped, and the Bayard Bridge was listing to one side. Slowly at first, and then with a groan, it collapsed and slid away. After 77 years and generations of horses, buggies, cars and kisses, it was gone.

Crowds had gathered to watch the sad finale. Once a local landmark, the Bayard Covered Bridge in Welsford, New Brunswick, was a pile of waterlogged lumber set adrift in a swollen, muddy river.

I was lost in thoughts--of life and death and the transient nature of beauty--when a woman turned and said, matter-of-factly, "Well, we needed a new bridge anyway."

I was appalled. How could anyone take the loss in stride? But the woman was right, I was being overly sentimental. The Bayard Bridge hadn't been built for painters and poets to swoon over; it was a practical, workaday structure whose time had passed. The heavy tide and slow-motion death was appropriate. On this rain-swollen March day, the bridge had simply drifted away.

The beauty of New Brunswick is not one of grandeur or luxury. It is a hidden, almost neglected beauty, a beauty best captured in the faded silence of its covered bridges. They are New Brunswick's unofficial symbol: anachronistic structures falling into sway-backed disarray, the planks loose, the wood a weather-beaten, silvery grey.

The bridges were first introduced to the Maritimes by Loyalist refugees in the 1780s. The plank-wall exteriors hide a complex interior structure, a lattice-work of crossbeams and trusses, with an interlocking triangular pattern that prefigures the geodesic dome.

This innovative design spread inland as far as Quebec. Ontario never really took to covered bridges; of the seven that were built, only one is still standing (the West Montrose Bridge near Waterloo).

No covered bridges have survived in Nova Scotia, and in Western Canada and Newfoundland none were ever built. But in New Brunswick, with its abundant forests, many small communities, and numerous creeks and rivers, hundreds of covered bridges were built.

New Brunswick today has the highest concentration of covered bridges in the world. Quebec is a close second, but in Quebec the bridges have been painted and re-sided, and most are well maintained.

Quebec bridges lack that certain New Brunswick charm that only benign neglect can give. Like old barns and train trestles, these bridges were not built to be beautiful; they became beautiful. The Japanese call it wabi-sabi: "the imperfect, the humble, the impermanent, the everyday made sublime." I call it "unintentional beauty."

It wasn't for esthetic reasons that they were covered. It was a matter of economics. Sun and rain quickly rotted exposed beams. An uncovered bridge would last 10 years, a covered one more than 70. Some covered bridges from the late 1800s are still standing, while not a single uncovered one has survived.

Summer and spring were the hardest seasons. Winter was not. Contrary to popular belief, the bridges were not covered to protect them from snow. Because horses pulled sleighs in the winter, snow had to be shovelled into covered bridges.

Horses, often afraid of rushing water, found the bridges comforting, and the bridge builders, taking note of this, made the entrances more and more barn-like.

Another danger (perceived if not real) were the vibrations caused by horse hooves and wagon wheels. Superstition had it that a fast-moving team could create a standing wave that would shake the sturdiest bridge into a pile of rubble. And thus a bill passed by the New Brunswick Legislature in 1845 dictated that "no Horse or other Beast, or Carriage of any kind, shall be taken over the said Bridge at a pace faster than a walk on pain of forfeiture of 20 shillings."

This had an unforeseen side-effect, as gentlemen accompanying young ladies were forced to slow down their horses and spend an inordinate amount of time within the structures. The darkness provided a ready alibi, and the bridges quickly became known as "kissing bridges."

The amount of kissing varied according to the length of the bridge. Hartland, New Brunswick, is home of the world's longest covered bridge, which runs 391 metres, making it more of a "heavy-petting and quick foreplay" bridge than a kissing one.

Indeed, when Hartland's covered bridge was under construction, the length was considered scandalous to many of the town's respectable, clean-minded citizens, who could imagine in vivid detail all kinds of lewd things their less restrained brethren might be tempted to perform in the privacy of its shadows.

A petition was circulated to prevent the bridge from being covered. A local preacher thundered on the subject, issuing grave warnings that the bridge would turn into a veritable "ram pasture." Handed over to the government, the petition declared that covering the bridge "would seriously jeopardize the morals of the young people of Hartland."

The bridge was covered anyway. As one official noted: "If the morals of the young people are so badly bent that it only requires a covered bridge to break them completely, there is little we, as the government, can do."

Covered bridges could also be eerie--especially at night. Not a few were haunted. All were deemed magical. If you closed your eyes and made a wish as you entered, your wish would come true when you left. From kissing bridges to wishing bridges, they soon became steeped in romance and folklore.

At times, it is hard to remember that these modest grey structures were built for purely pragmatic reasons. If the builders had had access to chemically treated wood or cheap concrete, they most certainly would have used them instead -- and they certainly wouldn't have gone through all the trouble of covering them. By 1919, the citizens of Hartland were hoping their bridge would be replaced with a fine concrete structure, which would "look much better."

In New Brunswick, wood was plentiful, rocks were not, and so the bridges were made of wood. In many cases building a bridge was cheaper than landfill, and even today one comes across great, lumbering structures over tiny gullies with the smallest trickle of a creek running through.

Anonymity is common among covered bridges; it is also one of the attractions. The bridges look more or less the same: elongated barns, unpainted wood and an almost austere lack of ornamentation.

With covered bridges, the context is everything. The bridge is a constant; the landscape changes. They span tidal heads, ravines, marshlands and streams that flow into the sea.

Pioneer roads often followed the river side, so when a covered bridge was built, it went at sharp right angles to the road. With the advent of automobiles the design created dangerous blind corners.

Covered bridges were built high--for hay wagons--but narrow. Many couldn't support heavy vehicles and several collapsed. Along major highways, where rerouting was considered too expensive, the Department of Highways simply tore down the old covered bridges and replaced them with modern designs. Those that weren't replaced were often washed away in floods or under log jams or with the ice at break-up. Several were ransacked for firewood. More than one was burnt to the water by arsonists. The oldest bridge still standing was built in 1870. Most were built in the early 1900s. The older ones are almost all gone.

In 1950, New Brunswick had 307 covered bridges. By 1975 there were 113. Today, there are only 69 still standing. I think of what my neighbour said: "If we don't act now, the only kiss we'll be giving is one of goodbye. And the only wish will be for the covered bridges we have lost."

Most of New Brunswick's bridges are in disrepair, but a few have been restored and are now promoted as tourist attractions. The irony is sweet. Covered bridges are becoming what they were never meant to be: impracticably preserved objects of sentimentality. The original builders would be nonplussed.

It is, of course, their very lack of pretension that gives covered bridges their appeal. When the authors of The REAL Guide: Canada write with a sniff of condescension that there is "nothing graceful or esthetically satisfying about (the Hartland Covered Bridge), it is just long," they are missing the point. In covered bridges we are not looking for grace or contrived esthetics. We are looking instead for a piece of ourselves, a part of our past, textured like old wood.

Nothing matches the sudden intake of breath you get when, driving through the forests of New Brunswick or along the seacoast or over a hill and into a village, you suddenly come upon an old covered bridge, unexpected and understated. You slow down the car. The light shimmers through the planks like an old movie.

Inside the pooled darkness, covered bridges resonant with echoes and old songs. The light flickering through creates a Zoetrope effect, a landscape in motion, and when you hit a certain speed--usually around 20 km/h --something magical happens. The bridge simply . . . dissolves. It becomes a ghost image, there and then gone.

They glow, these swaybacked bridges, silvery grey with time, perched over canyon and creek. They glow, and they breath. There is romance in the old girls yet.


Ottawa Citizen

May 24, 1998

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