A Kiss in the Dark
The vanishing beauty of covered bridges
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
May 24, 1998